Sitting pretty

JEFFERSON-Ashe County is close to paying off its debts on several long-term expenditures and its tax paying citizens could soon reap the benefits.

Within the next three years, the county should be able pay off debt for Ashe High, Westwood Elementary, Ashe County Public Library and the landfill.

What does this mean exactly?

For one, this will free up more than $2 million annually and allow county administration to address educational and facility needs for its citizenry.

Topping this list of “must haves” are the need for a new middle school and expansion at Wilkes Community College along with a new fire training center.

Remaining on the county’s balance is annual payments of $760,000 for the high school and $730,000 on Westwood, as well as $409,000 on the library, according to county finance records.

Debt service on the high school ends this year and in 2017-18 at Westwood. County officials said the library should be paid off by 2019.

But the elimination of certain debts isn’t the only increase in funding the county will be enjoying.

Two years ago, citizens voted to increase the county sales tax by one quarter of 1 percent.

As a result, Ashe received roughly $540,000 a year with nearly all of that is going to Ashe Memorial Hospital annually.

The original agreement slated a three-year agreement with the next fiscal year being the last installment.

Originally, the hospital approached the commissioners to ask for $1.5 million in funding. Instead, the county said they would let AMH have the sales tax proceeds for three years.

“We (the commissioners) indicated we would give that money to the hospital for the first three years and after the third year we agreed to put that money toward the building of a new middle school,” said Commissioner Larry Rhodes.

“We very much hope once we get there, the hospital will be on secure ground and won’t need it,” added County Manager Sam Yearick.

With several expenses being reconciled, the county will likely begin to address other needs.

“The question is, what do the county commissioners want to do with that money and when?” Yearick said.

Yearick added commissioners would likely schedule a workshop during upcoming budget sessions to determine how the freed up funds will be spent.

“That’s really a good problem to have,” Yearick said of the county’s fund balance and elimination of debt. “Financially, we are a very solid county.”

Although the county will likely have a surplus of funding with the elimination of debt a good portion of that money will go to other necessities.

The county is already anticipating paying $2.3 million a year in debt service on a new middle school. No plans have been finalized on when and where that facility will be built.

Rhodes said he hasn’t “heard much discussion” on what would happen to the current middle school, which is the former Northwest Ashe High School, once a new facility is built.

“When they (the schools) are ready to vacate these buildings, the school board usually gives the county the first option on those buildings,” said Rhodes.

Specifics of what the community college’s expansion will consist of has yet to be determined.

The majority of the board is an agreement that an expansion is necessary since many programs aren’t offered at the Ashe Campus and local students are forced to commute off the mountain to Wilkesboro.

The county’s financial obligation to a possible expansion is not set in stone. County officials said much of the project’s feasibility rests on happens with the Connect NC Bond and whether WCC sees the benefits of that.

Remaining on the county’s balance is the jail and detention center, which should be completed by 2029.

When the jail first opened, officials were able to set off costs of operating by housing inmates from other counties, such as Wilkes and Yadkin. Those counties have since built new facilities to house

their inmates. At one point, Wilkes County was paying Ashe $1 million annually to house its inmates, said Yearick.

Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.
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