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PUBLISHED ONLINE FEBRUARY 22, 2024   •   VOL. 6, NO. 8

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

 


Community service from first batch of Amazon employees

A posting on the Smithfield Parks & Recreation Facebook page earlier this week included photographs thanking volunteers from Amazon who spent a day cleaning up the grounds and walking trail at East Smithfield's Smith-Collins Park. No word yet on how many workers have been hired at Amazon's distribution center in West Smithfield so far. Chris Johnston, the county director of economic development, confirmed that Amazon has been working with the Capital Area Workforce Board with "various hiring events" over the past few weekends.
 



County options site for "a government complex"

One of the goals addressed at the Johnston County Commissioners' planning retreat a year ago and again last week is the need for more office space for County Government's administrative functions.

Toward that end, commissioners at their third-Monday meeting this week approved an option to purchase 86.22 acres on both sides of US 70 Business east of Smithfield just beyond the county's new Detention Center and Public Safety centers. The negotiated purchase price is $4,267,890, which is $49,500 per acre.

As stated in the option agreement, the site is being acquired "for a government complex." Commissioner Ted Godwin cast the only vote against the agreement, explaining that he favored a price no higher than $49,000 per acre during the board's discussion of the matter in recent closed sessions. Even so, he said he favored buying that particular parcel for the stated purpose.

Commissioners have been talking for some time about the urgency of providing expanded quarters for the county's Department of Social Services especially. They also had a study done this past year on options for expanding and consolidating other county administrative offices presently housed in the Courthouse and nearby buildings in Downtown Smithfield.

That study presented two options: (1) renovation of the three Social Services buildings between Hancock and North streets that will be vacated once new quarters are built; or (2) constructing a completely new complex on a new site. With this week's action, it's apparent the second option has emerged as the board's choice.

The next step, once the 86.22 acres have been secured, would be development of a site plan along with cost estimates and a financing plan for whatever buildings are to be constructed. Meanwhile, renovation of spaces within the Courthouse recently vacated by moving most of the jail, the Sheriff's Department, and Emergency Management to new quarters is expected to begin soon to provide more room for Johnston's judicial system.

Purchase of the 86.22 acres (gold tracts outlined in red) will bring the county's holdings in the vicinity to 165.83 acres. In addition to the site of the new Detention and Public Safety centers purchased several years ago, the county last year bought 50 acres of undeveloped land straddling Yelverton Grove Road south of 70 Business.
(County GIS map)


County to spend $10.9 million on older sewage plant here

Even though a new treatment plant is under construction near the county's landfill off NC 210 west of Smithfield, the County Commissioners this week approved spending $10,995,000 to upgrade the existing plant on the Neuse River below Smithfield.
Included in that cost is a $9,741,092 construction contract with Dellinger, Inc. of Monroe. Technical services and contingencies make up the rest of the total cost.

Funding for the project is coming from a direct state appropriation of $7,495,000 coupled with $3.5 million of federal ARPA money allotted the county by the American Rescue Plan Act adopted by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county is upgrading the sewage plant built in the 1960s by the Town of Smithfield as part of long-range planning to accommodate Johnston's rapid residential development. Plans are already in the works for expanding the new plant off NC 210 even before it's finished and placed in service.


County buys another tract for Cleveland Township park

Commissioners approved buying another 10 acres beside McLemore Road to be added to previously purchased property for what's to be developed as Johnston County's first "regional park." The purchase price is $330,000. The 10-acre tract adjoins 81 acres acquired by the county several years ago.
 




REGISTER OF DEEDS SALUTED FOR "THANK A VET" PROJECT

Craig Olive (front and center), Johnston County's Register of Deeds, got a public thank-you at Monday's County Commissioners meeting for his "Thank A Vet" initiative that issues ID cards qualifying military veterans for discounts at more than a hundred local businesses. Standing with Mr. Olive are Johnston County Veterans Council President Larry Pittman (left) and Director of Veterans Services Robert Boyette. Behind them are Commissioners April Stephens, Tony Braswell, Butch Lawter, Ted Godwin, and Dickie Braswell (Patrick Harris and Fred Smith were not present). (Photo from County of Johnston Facebook page)
 

Countywide fire-tax plan moves toward July 1 start

The fourth in a series of public informational meetings about the county's plan to consolidate its 26 rural fire districts into a single district for property taxation drew just a handful of citizens to Smithfield-Selma High School last Saturday morning.

Perhaps that's because of what won't be changed when the new plan takes effect. The names of Johnston's fire departments and their territories won't be altered. Neither will boundaries of existing districts for insurance purposes.

What will likely change are the property-tax rates levied in those 26 districts. The current rates range from 6 to 13 cents per $100 valuation (12 cents in the district surrounding Smithfield). Next fiscal year, which starts July 1, the rate will be the same for all property owners who reside outside of Johnston's municipalities.

The countywide fire-tax rate will be determined this spring by the County Commissioners when they adopt the county's budget for fiscal 2024-25.

The purpose of moving to a single-district plan for rural fire taxation is "to provide the most equitable level of service" throughout Johnston, states the county in its prepared presentation to citizens attending the informational sessions. The plan provides funding to ensure that at least one firefighter is on duty Monday through Friday at all departments starting July 1.

Starting January 1, 2025 all departments will have at last one first responder "qualified at the EMS level," states the county's plan.

Before the single-district proposal can be adopted, the County Commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the plan at its evening meeting on Monday, April 1.


County bond issue drew unprecedented 19 bidders

The County Commissioners got that news at last week's Strategic Planning Retreat that was live-streamed Thursday and Friday on the county's YouTube site>

"We think this is an all-time record," reported Kyle Laux of Davenport & Company, the county's financial advisors for more than two decades.

A large part of the reason for that is the county's upgraded bond rating, which this past year rose to the highest level awarded by the nation's two leading bond-rating agencies: Moody's and S&P (Standard & Poor's).

As a result, $30 million worth of bonds authorized in 2022 by the county's voters for school construction sold recently for a net interest rate of 3.68%, which is less than the 5% anticipated in the county's long-term borrowing plan.

Mr. Laux told commissioners his firm estimates the county has saved $31 million in interest expense over the past 20 years because of a steady upgrading of its bond ratings during that time.

The 2022 bond referendum authorized $177 million for construction of new facilities for Johnston County Public Schools and Johnston Community College. The county will issue additional bonds beyond the initial $30 million later this year. Projects to be financed include the new Wilson's Mills High School and a new elementary school on Cleveland Road that will bear the name of Swift Creek.

 



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Town earmarks state grant for costly police project

The Smithfield Town Council took action on just two items at Tuesday's newly established second monthly meeting. One was designating a $450,000 "public safety" grant from the 2023 N.C. General Assembly to help cover cost overruns for the recently expanded headquarters of the Police Department.

When the council learned in December 2022 that the cost of the 3,500-square-foot expansion of Smithfield's police headquarters on South Fifth Street had risen from a earlier estimate of $784,572 to a revised amount above $1.8 million, the council agreed to dip into the town's share of federal ARPA funding approved by Congress under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The $450,000 state grant, in effect, frees up some of that ARPA money for other projects that may be identified in the council's upcoming budget sessions.


The other item addressed Tuesday was to set the starting time for the second monthly meeting on the third Tuesday at 7 p.m. rather than this week's 6:30 start. The council's regularly scheduled meeting on the first Tuesday also starts at 7 p.m.

Council members and staff also agreed to begin scheduling public hearings on rezoning cases and other ordinance changes during the third-Tuesday sessions so decisions on those cases could be put off till the first-Tuesday session. That would allow time for follow-up deliberations before final decisions are made.

Council members also agreed to allow slots for "Citizens Comments" during both monthly meetings.

 



Meet the Ava Gardner Museum's new manager

Story & photo from Johnston County Visitors Bureau
The Ava Gardner Museum board of directors has hired Angelica Henry as the new museum manager. Long-time Executive Director Lynell Seabold has retired to Edenton; however, she will remain working with the museum part-time as bookkeeper and grant administrator.

Angelica Henry is a Florida native with a passion for preserving memories. She holds a bachelor's degree in Art History and Arts Administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and pursued a Masters in Library Science with a concentration in Archives and Special Collections from her alma mater.

Weekly, Angelica volunteers as a docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Besides her love for the museum realm, Angelica is an avid reader, writer, and house-plant hobbyist. She attributes her love for Golden Age Hollywood to her mother, Claudia, who raised her on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.


"I know fans of Ava to be tried and true," she said. "I cannot wait to meet everyone, and to hear the many stories and personal connections to this luminary of a woman. I’ve got big shoes to fill following Lynell’s seven years of leadership, and I am humbly up for the challenge."

 

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WHAT'S COMING UP

County will alter chemistry of Johnston West water March 1
Beginning March 1 and continuing till mid-April, the Johnston County Water Treatment Plant will temporarily stop feeding ammonia with chlorine for disinfection and start feeding chlorine only for customers on the Johnston West system. "State and federal regulations require that all public water systems feed chlorine only for at least three weeks each year to insure that no bacteria are present which may have adapted to the ammonia in the water," states the county's announcement. "The county will also conduct flushing of the Johnston West water-distribution system during this period to speed the removal of chloramines from the system. The flushing process may result in some minor and temporary discoloration of water that does not affect water quality. If any related issues cannot be cleared by flushing the lines inside your home, please call Public Utilities at 919-989-5075." (Town of Smithfield water customers should see no effects from the county's procedures.)
 



DEATHS & FUNERALS

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

ANNIE RUTH WOOD ADAMS, 82 – died February 20

CHARLES JIMMY EDWARDS, 76 – died February 15
 


A WORD (OR TWO) FROM THE EDITOR

Which is better for county: 20-year or 30-year bonds?

County Commissioner Fred Smith raised the question during last week's Strategic Planning Retreat, contending that a longer period for repaying debt on new schools and other structures would ensure that users of those facilities well into the future will help pay for what's being built to last a lifetime and beyond.

As things now stand, most public financing through bond issues are limited to 20 years or less, in large measure to keep a lid on interest costs.

Mr. Smith went on to point out that spreading out the financing over 30 years would free up county capital funding quicker for other needs that are sure to confront the county's principal governing board.

But Kyle Laux of Davenport & Company, the county's long-time financial advisors, noted that the N.C. Local Government Commission frowns on general-obligation bonds for things like new schools going beyond 20 years, especially for a county like Johnston which this past year achieved a AAA bond rating. The 20-year ceiling on such financing is considered "a best practice," he advised.

Hearing that, Commissioner Smith backed away from his suggestion. "Kyle, you earned your fee today," he told Mr. Laux. "Now I understand."

Meanwhile, the County of Johnston has an option many local governments lack these days: cash on hand to pay for some of its capital needs without borrowing money, thanks to a General Fund Balance that has grown far beyond the county's goal of reserving an amount that's 20% of annual expenditures. It was noted at last week's retreat that the county's current fund balance has reached 73% because of "conservative budgeting" coupled with Johnston's fast-growing property-tax base.

 



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