Stanly County Commissioners consider school budget, solar facility

FILE PHOTO: Stanly County Schools | Stanly County Schools

ALBEMARLE — The county commissioners held a lengthy meeting Monday night with presentations and discussions on several notable items. Dr. Jeff James, Stanly County Schools superintendent, presented the school system’s 2018-19 budget request to begin the meeting. This is the first budget under James’ leadership as his first day on the job was March 1, 2018. James began his remarks with a discussion of the importance of county funds to supplement teacher pay to maintain competitive salaries and retain teacher talent.

Dr. Jeff James (Photo: Montgomery County Schools)

James told the commissioners that he anticipated approximately $300,000 in reduced funding from the state primarily for teaching assistants and textbooks. State dollars are often tied to enrollment figures, and Stanly County Schools has experienced declining enrollment.  Because of better unemployment statistics and economic development, the school district will receive $179,000 less in federal low-income funding.

One of the largest budget increases is more than $850,000 in retirement and insurance increases for system employees. To offset the reductions in state and federal dollars and to fund the increase in employers’ costs for insurance and retirement, the county schools need around $1.3 million. According to James, most of the additional needs will be offset by saving $1.13 million by aligning teacher positions to their class-size adjustments. James noted that more than 91 percent of the system’s $57.4 million in state funds are spent on salaries and benefits, leaving $5.1 million in state funds for supplies, software, equipment and services. On the local spending side, the almost $12 million local budget requested would be spent almost evenly between salaries and benefits — including the local teacher supplements — and operations expenses.

In discussing ways to fund the system, James noted there were other options besides direct appropriation from the county. “If we would implement the quarter-cent sales tax in this county … when you look at the surround counties, Richmond and Union are the only two counties that do not have the quarter-cent sales tax,” said James. “That would produce about a million-and-a-half dollars a year.”

Following the school budget presentation, the commissioners unanimously approved a request from Wesley K. Bowers to rezone a 5.69-acre tract near Cottonville Road from heavy industrial to residential/agricultural. No one spoke during the public hearing on the matter.

Next, the commissioners considered an amendment to the county zoning ordinance which would allow the zoning administrator to increase the buffer between a solar facility and residences. After the presentation, the commissioners voted 5-2 to approve the change. Commissioner Matthew Swain, who voted against the change, noted the motion to amend the ordinance requires a unanimous vote to pass on the first reading. After a brief recess to consult with staffers, the commissioners announced the amendment will be considered at their next meeting.

After the amendment discussion, Planning Director Michael Sandy presented a request from Stanly Solar to establish a solar electric generating system overlay district made up of six land parcels near 20165 Old Aquadale Road. The Planning Board recommended approval 4-2.

During the public comment period, Edward Gann, an adjacent property owner, expressed concerns with the project. The Stanly Planning Board considered this request and did not recommend it unanimously. Gann called the change to the zoning ordinance as “highly inadequate” with respect to the large facility requested. Stephen Efird, another adjacent owner, voiced support for the project. Andrew McSwain, another adjacent owner, also expressed support for the project and said, “the benefits outweigh the potential problems.”

Swain moved to hold the public hearing open until June 11 while the board considered the overall zoning ordinance amendment that would enable the solar project. That motion carried unanimously. Commission Chair Joseph Burleson said that the solar facility would be considered, and public comment would be allowed at the June 11 meeting following the board’s action on the text amendment to the zoning ordinance.

The commissioners also heard from Dana Stoogenke of the Rocky River RPO on N.C. DOT project prioritization. The board took no action as the presentation was informational only.