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PUBLISHED ONLINE JUNE 20, 2024   •   VOL. 6, NO. 25

Content produced by WINGATE LASSITER unless credited otherwise
(Click on highlighted link above to e-mail the editor)

 

County budget adopted with 2-cent tax cut
and 17.5% more for public-school operations

Johnston's County Commissioners approved last-minute changes in the county manager's proposed budget by unanimous vote without any further discussion at their regular third-Monday meeting.

County Manager Rick Hester (in screenshot from Monday's meeting) had recommended an increase in funding for Johnston County Public Schools from $88.5 million this year to $93.3 million in fiscal 2024-25, which begins July 1. Following behind-the-scenes negotiations with school leaders, the County Commissioners settled on an appropriation of $104 million – an increase of 17.5%.

At the same time, commissioners approved $3.5 million for capital improvements – a cut from this year's $6 million and far short of the schools' request for $28.8 million. But that's not the final tally. Later during Monday's session, commissioners committed up to $11.3 million beyond the newly adopted budget for a 24-classroom addition at Cleveland High School. Mr. Hester said his staff will "bring back a recommendation to the commissioners on how to actually fund it – if we borrow money or come back with another plan."

Wasting no time to move forward with the Cleveland project, Johnston's Board of Education on Tuesday approved construction contracts (details in story below).

In addition to that, Chairman Butch Lawter said the board will revisit Neuse Charter School's request for $8 million to help pay for a second classroom building once staff has completed due diligence on legal steps the county must take to authorize the grant under enabling legislation adopted this past year by the N.C. General Assembly. That appropriation is not included in the budget adopted Monday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hester’s recommendations for county contributions to Johnston Community College were left at $6,912,290 for current expense and $1.2 million for capital outlay – same as the current year’s amounts.

The two-cent cut in the county's property-tax rate follows a four-cent cut last year and reduces the rate to 67 cents per $100 valuation for bills going out this summer.

The new budget sets a countywide fire-tax rate at 14 cents under a plan that consolidates the 26 rural districts outside Johnston's towns into a single district effective July 1. This past year the rates for all the districts except Claytex surrounding Clayton were less than the new 14-cent countywide rate. The fire district around Smithfield had a 12-cent rate.

For county employees, the new budget provides for a 3% across-the-board pay hike July 1 and a possible performance-based increase up to 2% in October. The budget resolution sets new salaries for certain administrative and elected officers:
• County Manager Rick Hester – $275,000.
• County Attorney Jennifer Slusser – $225,000.
• Sheriff Steve Bizzell – $190,000.
• Tax Administrator Jocelyn Andrews – $150,000.
• Register of Deeds Craig Olive – $132,000.
• Clerk to the Board Dana Cuddington – $90,000.

Appropriations added by the board to the new budget

The commissioners' resolution adopting the 2024-25 budget increased several appropriations beyond the county manager's recommendations:
JCATS QuickRide got $275,000 added to continue its on-call transit service in the Smirthfield-Selma area. (Mr. Hester previously said he had inadvertently overlooked that request when he prepared his proposed budget.)

Harbor Inc., the domestic-violence program, got $225,000 added to Mr. Hester’s recommended $100,000 to equal a $325,000 contribution made this past year.
Smithfield Rescue Mission got $24,000, which wasn’t included in the manager’s proposal. Last year the agency got $45,000.
Clayton Civitan Club got $75,000 added to Mr. Hester’s recommended $75,000 for a total of $150,000 the club had requested to help pay for new lighting at five fields used for competition in several youth sports.
Moccasin Creek Drainage District got $250,000 to match a grant for another stream-clearance project.
N.C. Forest Service got a $9,788 addition to the county’s share of its Johnston County budget. As a result, the local operation will receive $173,392 from the county and $260,999 from the state in the year ahead.

Other “Special Appropriations” to programs outside of County Government include:
Triangle Land Conservancy – $500,000, down from $715,000 budgeted this year.
Johnston Health Foundation – $100,000, same as the current appropriation for Project Access, a program extending health care to uninsured Johnstonians.
My Kid’s Club – $100,000, same as the current year’s contribution.
Partnership for Children – $50,000, same as this year. The agency had requested $100,000.
Johnston County Arts Council – $19,000, an increase from $15,000 this year.

Representatives from a citizens’ lobby called Down Home N.C. appeared before commissioners during all three budget sessions held since the first of June to request employment of an “energy manager” who could seek grants from the federal Inflation Reduction Act to help low-income households pay their utility bills. Their request wasn’t included in the new year’s budget.

 


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School board lists projects for proposed bond issue
Replacing oldest part of South Smithfield Elementary included

During a special session Tuesday, Johnston’s Board of Education adopted a resolution listing construction and renovation projects to be funded with the proposed $120-million school-bond issue going before voters in November. The list includes classroom additions at three schools, major renovations at half a dozen, replacement of HVAC and fire-alarm systems at a number schools, and other improvements.

The focus is on elementary schools. South Smithfield is one, where an original wing built in 1956 would be demolished and replaced with new construction.

Here’s the complete list in the order presented in the board’s resolution:


• Renovate Corinth Holders Elementary School; construct a classroom addition.
• Construct a classroom addition to Thanksgiving Elementary School.
• Renovate Wilson’s Mills Elementary School; construct a classroom addition.
• Renovate McGee's Crossroads Elementary School.
• Renovate South Smithfield Elementary; demolish and reconstruct the primary wing.
• Renovate Four Oaks and Cleveland elementary schools; replace HVAC systems.
• Replace six obsolete fire-alarm systems at Cooper Academy, Wilson’s Mills Elementary, Pine Level Elementary, East Clayton Elementary, West Clayton Elementary, and Polenta Elementary.
• Construct a press box for the baseball and softball fields at North Johnston High; resurface the track and tennis courts.
• Renovate and construct a metal roof overbuild on East Clayton Elementary School.
• Provide HVAC improvements to various schools by upgrading automated control systems and/or replacing chillers containing obsolete R-22 Freon.

Construction contracts awarded for Cleveland High addition

The Board of Education approved contracts with three construction companies for a 24-classroom addition to Cleveland High School, which opened at its present site on Polenta Road in 2010. The goal is completion in time for the 2025-26 school year.

Construction contractors and their approved bids are:
• Wimco Corporation (General Construction): $6,714,757.
• Baker Mechanical, Inc. (HVAC & Plumbing): $2,342,089.
• Coastline Electrical Construction, Inc. (Electrical): $799,450.


Additional contracts for the addition’s design, furniture and fixtures, and technology bring total estimated cost of the project to $11,599,131 – $350,000 of that already appropriated by the county, source of the rest of the funding yet to be determined.
 

SMITHFIELD-SELMA HIGH SCHOOL
releases Principal's List and Honor Roll

for the fourth nine weeks of the 2023-24 academic year>


 




Town Council rejects "Buffalo Ridge" subdivision

After two and a half hours of negotiation with developers about specifics of their proposal, the Smithfield Town Council voted 4-3 Tuesday night to deny conditional rezoning of 140 acres of mostly cleared farmland on the west side of Buffalo Road for a 210-lot residential subdivision labeled as "Buffalo Ridge."

The council's reservations about the project ranged from smaller lot sizes to architectural standards for the envisioned single-family dwellings. During a public hearing prior to the council's discussion, residents from nearby Bradford Park voiced alarms about roadway traffic and storm-water flooding.

Voting against approval of the plan: Travis Scott, who several times voiced opposition to proposed lot sizes as small as 6,000 feet, along with Marlon Lee, Steve Rabil, and Roger Wood. Voting in favor: David Barbour, John Dunn, Sloan Stevens.

During the public hearing, Rick Buckner of Bradford Park's Cobblestone Court objected to the proposal's housing "density," noting that "the market is being groomed by investors and developers" who want to build subdivisions with lots smaller than the minimum 8,000 square feet normally allowed under the town's zoning rules. "What is the maximum amount of houses, the maximum amount of population that Smithfield can support?" Mr. Buckner asked.

The relatively new Conditional Zoning classification in play at Tuesday's meeting has opened the door for negotiations leading to smaller lot sizes as a trade-off for exceeding minimum town standards for amenities like sidewalks and street design, recreation facilities and open spaces.

That's the procedure that has delayed the council's approval of another large subdivision proposed for wooded acreage across Buffalo Road from the project rejected Tuesday. First brought before the council in January, that plan asks for 222 single-family lots on a portion of 139 acres adjacent to Bradford Park and Smithfield Community Park. Postponed several times since then, it's now scheduled for reconsideration by the Town Council in July.

Meanwhile, the council last month approved a mixed-use plan that includes 209 single-family houses on lots as small as 4,200 square feet. That decision also came after lengthy give-and-take between council members and developers. That plan has commercial and industrial components along with apartments and covers 164 acres on both sides of Durwood Stephenson Parkway east of Booker Dairy Road.


Council adopts rule requiring paved driveways

From now on, new residential driveways within both the town's limits and Smithfield's ETJ (Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction) must be paved with either concrete or asphalt or some other comparable solid surface.

Planning Director Stephen Wensman presented the new rule in response to an uptick in "infill" construction of new houses on lots in the older sections of town.

He said the town's Planning Board had requested an exemption from the rule for properties within the ETJ areas, but Town Attorney Bob Spence advised against such "splitting" of the town's zoning regulations.

In response, the council amended the new rule to make it clear that commercial, industrial, and agricultural operations are not covered by the regulation. As a result, new driveways up to 50 feet in length must be paved from now on, and those driveways may not take up more than 50% of a dwelling's front yard.

Councilman Scott cast the only vote against the new rule.


Meeting with Downtown Development board canceled

The Town Council had scheduled a special session Monday evening with directors of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation, but it was canceled Monday morning. "The meeting was intended to be a verbal exercise to improve communication and expectations of each board,” explained Town Manager Mike Scott in an e-mail message to the Weekly Sun. "The expectations of a social district, downtown murals, downtown maintenance, event planning, and the use of program funds budgeted by Council were all items that were planned to be discussed."
 



WHAT'S COMING UP

Summer astronomically arrives at 4:51 this afternoon
Obviously, meteorological summer (June, July, and August) has already descended upon us with several 90-degree days already. But the Summer Solstice, when the Sun reaches its farthest latitude north of the Equator, is calculated to take place at 4:51 p.m. today. That also produces the year's longest days: 14 hours, 36 minutes between sunrise every day this week, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac>

Friday's River Jam Concert: Beach's Chairmen of the Board
Billed as a "legendary" Beach and Rhythm & Blues band, Chairmen of the Board featuring vocalist General Johnson will crank up for an evening performance at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Neuse River Amphitheater. Hosted by the Smithfield Parks & Recreation Department, these "River Jam" concerts are free of admission charge.

Heat prompts cancellation of Saturday's Farmers Market
Here's the announcement posted on Facebook Wednesday evening:
Due to this weekend’s scorching hot temperatures and the concern of our vendor’s safety, this Saturday’s Farmers Market will be cancelled. Join us in September for more Farmers Markets.
High-temperature forecasts for this Saturday in Smithfield:

95 by weather.com, 96 with a "real feel" of 103 by accuweather.com.

Saturday's Juneteenth Celebration at Smith-Collins still on
Despite the heated forecast, Saturday's Juneteenth Celebration was still being advertised this morning (Thursday). It begins with a parade at 10:30 starting at the Alumni Center on Massey Street and proceeding to Smith-Collins Park where the celebration continues at 3 p.m. with a cookout and musical entertainment.

County Commissioners to "incentivize" Novo Nordisk?
Johnston's Board of County Commissioners will conduct a public hearing at 11 a.m. Monday at the Courthouse on a pre-arranged incentive grant to an unnamed company that proposes "to expand existing manufacturing/production facilities in the Johnston County Research and Training Zone in the Clayton area," according to the county's official notice of the special meeting. Local media have reported that it's another expansion of the Novo Nordisk pharmaceutical complex east of Clayton.
 



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DEATHS & FUNERALS

Click on the name to read an obituary, usually posted by the funeral home.

LINDA WOODALL GORDON, 80 – died June 17

SHIRLEY JOHNSON STEPHENSON, 87 – died June 17

JAMES MELVIN BRASWELL, 81 – died June 16

VERLIA GRAY STEPHENSON HOCUTT, 96 – died June 14

JERRY DWAIN GILMORE, 79 – died June 12

LANIE BROWN POWELL, 75 – died June 12
 



Houses are shown under construction last fall in the East River subdivision on the north side of Smithfield. Buyers wasted no time claiming their piece of the action.

A WORD (OR TWO) FROM THE EDITOR

Smithfield's growth long overdue, yet troublesome

The Smithfield Town Council finds itself between the proverbial "rock and a hard place" as it attempts to "manage" the new residential development engulfing our community along with the rest of Johnston County.

On the one hand, this new growth is being welcomed with open arms after several decades of stagnation when it comes to new housing construction here.

On the other hand, the surge in new development has folks worried about increased traffic congestion and the literal uprooting of our physical environment.

Those mixed feelings rose to the surface with this week's 4-3 vote by the Smithfield Town Council to reject a developer's plan for a large subdivision off Buffalo Road south of Smithfield Middle School. What was remarkable about that was the council's approval one month ago of a similar development off Booker Dairy Road. The favorable vote on that one was 5-1 (with one council member absent).

Apparently driving that change in sentiment is what has already taken place here. Council members have several times recently pointed to the built-out East River subdivision farther out Buffalo Road as an example of what they don't want Smithfield to become: a bunch of single-family houses crammed onto relatively tiny lots along narrow streets often restricted by parked vehicles.

What's taking place here is a market-driven charge by developers to make new housing more affordable for buyers, and more profitable for investors. The more houses you can fit onto a large piece of property, the more attractive becomes the price for consumers and the profit margin for developers.

In the case of East River, that scenario has turned out to be a resounding success as those new houses have been gobbled up by buyers as fast as they've been built.

And so, more of that is bound to come our way.

The question now before Smithfield's elected leaders is when do you say yes and when do you say no and remain fair to those that ask while protecting the well-being of Smithfield's existing residents. Stay tuned.

 



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