Last updated: December 20. 2013 3:18PM - 1106 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSampson County Board of Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland, center, speaks to the board during a budget session earlier this week, during which it discussed a financing extension request for a Clinton City Schools activity bus. The request was subsequently denied in a 3-2 vote.
Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentSampson County Board of Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland, center, speaks to the board during a budget session earlier this week, during which it discussed a financing extension request for a Clinton City Schools activity bus. The request was subsequently denied in a 3-2 vote.
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Clinton City Schools Superintendent Stuart Blount said the school system is “moving on” with a purchase of an activity bus, even after the Sampson Board of Commissioners denied the system’s request to extend the financing of the vehicle from three years to five.

School officials, including Blount and Clyde Locklear, the assistant superintendent for finance and facilities, brought the request for a five-year term to the county board earlier this week, an effort to reduce pressure on their capital expenditure budget. The school system is allowed by state law to arrange their own financing for terms up to three years, however if seeking financing for longer than three years, the Board of Commissioners must give its approval.

The Board of Commissioners ultimately declined in a 3-2 vote to extend financing for an activity bus from three to five years, expressing concerns with the purchase itself, which was previously approved by the school board.

“We were anticipating that the commissioners would allow us two more years so we could have some leeway. Our board had already made a decision to purchase the bus and our board is committed to moving forward with that purchase,” Blount said. “We wanted five years to make the payments less and extending it to five years would have freed up additional money in case any capital issues did come up.”

That freed up money would come with a minor hike in interest expense, but would give the school system some wiggle room should other pressing capital needs arise, school officials maintained.

Three-year financing ties up more money for the short term and Blount said it “makes good financial sense” to extend the loan in order not to obligate an additional $13,000 annually. He said it was a matter of trying to forecast the unpredictable, and prepare for it.

The five-year term would have been $21,025 at a 1.69 percent interest rate, as opposed to $34,365 at a 1.54 percent interest rate for three years, the latter of which will now be in effect due to the commissioners’ vote.

“We realize the need to replace the bus. Our rationale (in requesting five years) was it allowed us $13,000 in uncommitted funds to handle anything that comes up without petitioning the county commissioners for additional monies,” Blount said. “We’re truly trying to be fiscally responsible so we’re not making decisions to obligate a larger portion of money when we can get it for an extremely unbelievable rate.”

The Clinton Board of Education approved the purchase of a 72-passenger — the largest capacity available — Carolina Thomas activity bus in order to replace a 25-year-old bus, the oldest of the system’s six activity buses currently in its fleet. That purchase and the five-year financing were unanimously approved by the school board earlier this month, but the financing was contingent on the Board of Commissioners’ go-ahead.

The issue was broached at the county’s monthly budget session Tuesday, which recessed and reconvened Wednesday night, prior to scheduled public hearings on other matters. Some commissioners sided with the school system’s desire to extend the financing while others expressed their concern with spending more money, and utilizing it on buses.

The cost of the bus would come to $88,384 plus the cost of applicable tax, tags, and title fees. Blount said he did not know what the final cost would be, but expected it to be in the low $90,000s range.

In its 25 years, the bus has racked up a whopping 825,000 miles. Major engine problems took the bus out of commission, and, with those repairs estimated to cost a minimum of $10,000, school officials sought other options. The city schools system has five activity buses and one mini-bus, and the inoperable activity bus has left the system with just four activity buses. Sampson County Schools, with many more facilities and more ground to cover, has 21 such vehicles in operation.

“When it first came to me I was under the impression that we were buying a bus for $100,000 and there are people in my district who have houses that don’t cost that,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby. “Under these circumstances, under the economic times, there’s something about that … now, we’re not approving it obviously.’

However, Kirby said to the extent that he would be voting for the five-year financing green light, he said he would have a tough time explaining to his constituents who would say “that a system has test scores in this area and we’re buying buses as opposed to buying computers or spending money on staff folks educating kids specifically.”

“I get that blowback from people in my district, in my community,” he said. “So that’s the thing that gave me pause about this, but obviously if you need a bus, you need a bus.”

Commissioner Jarvis McLamb said school systems’ roofing needs were just broached a matter of weeks ago.

“That seemed to be a need,” said McLamb. “The bus seems to be a want.”

Other commissioners said they were in favor of granting the schools’ request.

“If they have a bus that has 825,000 miles on it, 25 years old, I take Mr. Locklear’s advice,” said commissioner Billy Lockamy. “It’s in their budget. They just want to extend the loan and I don’t see a problem with it. I trust that if they didn’t need it, they wouldn’t be here.”

At the meeting, Blount said he respected commissioners’ concerns. He said, from a safety and cost standpoint, purchasing an activity bus and financing it over five years was the best option.

“I truly respect both of those viewpoints,” the superintendent said. “In looking at transporting children up and down the highways of the county and neighboring counties, making sure that transportation is the best it can be and the safest it can be — there is a lot of education that takes place outside of the classroom and those activity buses play a huge part in that.”

Blount said, despite the opposition by some commissioners, the school system is pressing on with its approved purchase and the superintendent said he anticipates delivery of the new bus in mid-to-late January.

“I see that as an extremely wise investment,” said Blount. “I’m not sure there are many systems in the state of North Carolina that have 825,000 miles on a bus, transporting children and doing it safely. I think it has truly lived its life. I respect the decision of the commissioners, but we’re looking at it from two different perspectives. We feel this is a need and a realistic request, and if we had something come up we would have that additional money. The difference in the financing cost was minimal. Five years would have been less than $2,100 more.”

The 3-2 vote to decline the five-year option came Wednesday, with Kirby, McLamb and Commissioner Harry Parker voting to decline the request. Board chairman Jefferson Strickland and Lockamy voted in favor of the school request.

“I’m not here to battle the commissioners,” Blount continued. “We see it as a need and we were requesting and hoping we would be able to extend that (financing) for another two years so we could have that unobligated money should any unforeseen expenses arise. They chose not to.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.

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