County chairman talks 2023 priorities

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • Education, construction projects and future development are some of the priorities for the Hoke County Board of Commissioners going into 2023, Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said.

Thomas sat down with the News-Journal last week to talk about what’s going on in Hoke, what commissioners discussed at a recent retreat and what the elected leaders see as the top issues for the county coming up in the New Year.

The $78 million project to replace the Gibson side of Hoke County High School with a single large building is top of the list, the chairman said, but other school needs are high-priority too.

“Number one is definitely education, making sure that our school system is adequately funded and that they have the facilities that they need to adequately educate our children. The Hoke County High School project of course is number one in our minds right now,” Thomas said. “But we also recognize, we’ve been put on notice that an elementary school is needed. It’s great to have advance notice like that so we can prepare and plan for another major, major capital project.”

The commissioners and school board are likely going to meet in the middle or latter part of January to discuss the high school project, and other topics of note. Three of the school board members are newcomers to the board, and Thomas said he would like to make sure the two entities are on the same page.

“We also, ourselves, want to be updated on the project,” he said. The architect SFL+A continues working on the design. As of the most recent update, the building would include amenities like a gym, media center, cafeteria and over 60 classrooms, and would go roughly where the tennis courts are on the high school campus right now.

As part of the project, closing the section of Bethel Road that runs through the middle of the Hoke High campus was a necessary step. The Raeford City Council approved the plan to do so this year. The architect requested the road closure for safety reasons, and to work with plans for a new drop-off and bus unloading pattern.

“We’ve worked closely with the city of Raeford to get Bethel Road closed, which is a major thing for the city to do for the students of this community. Not often are city governments able to have such an impact on school systems because typically it’s a county thing, and the school system, but they played a major role in this project,” Thomas added.

As for future plans for a new elementary school, that’s coming sooner than later.

“I would safely say within five years, and I think that project will be grant-dependent as well,” the chairman said.

The Hoke High replacement project received $50 million total in grant funding from the state, with commissioners adding about $28 million of local funding to the pot of money.

Another new construction in the works – a plan to build a new Hoke County Courthouse – is also largely grant-funded, with about $31 million coming from the state and a few extra million added by commissioners.

Thomas and Commissioner Harry Southerland recently met with several stakeholders, including District Attorney Mike Hardin, to talk about some of the details of the project. The county will have to work to stay within budget while also making the best use of the available space in landlocked downtown Raeford – and while figuring out a parking solution. As things stand, the courthouse is intended as a three-story building set to go up on the empty lot on Main Street next to the existing courthouse.

The designer updated the board further during the retreat in December, Thomas said.

“We were updated on the design of the courthouse. We’re pleased. We recognize that this courthouse project, from the start, would be a difficult feat to pull off for a couple of different reasons,” he said.

The location is not ideal for expansion, but the board chose it because of its proximity to the jail and the heart of downtown Raeford, Thomas noted.

“We want to be good partners with the city, we want to make sure that we continue to be an economic driver for the many businesses that invest in our hometown,” he said. “With that comes other issues of being landlocked, like lack of parking. We’re working every day to look at different plans for parking. We did go over our first plan for parking…we have probably 10 options of how we can increase parking in the proximity of the new justice center. We’re looking at it very closely.”

To pursue the best option for parking solutions, the county plans to create a separate committee and get downtown businesses involved so they can also have a say.

“How can we work together to solve this problem that we all foresee that will be a problem,” Thomas said.

Working to get grant money to fund public construction projects like the courthouse and the Hoke High on-site replacement appears to be a good strategy for Hoke County, and it’s something that the county will be working with in the future to tackle more projects like a new elementary school, Thomas said.

“With these grants we’re able to fast-forward projects that maybe we may not have been able to afford otherwise,” he said. “Could we have afforded to build a $78 million high school replacement project without the grant? Probably not. But with the grant, it makes things possible that would not have been possible, and it allows us to not have to put that burden on our taxpayers through tax increases.

“We’ve built up our fund balance over the past six years for the purpose of being able to build these capital projects, so we see examples of using grant funding for certain things, and then we see certain possibilities of using our fund balance and revenues for other things. We’re doing the best we can to try to plan in an intelligent way for the future.”

The new Parks and Recreation and aquatics center is another big piece of the puzzle for the county in the coming year. Commissioners look to have the new center open in late January, though final details aren’t set yet for the grand opening. The board does plan to pursue additional Parks and Recreation opportunities in the future to offer more amenities for the people of Hoke County, Thomas said.

During their retreat in Charlotte, the commissioners toured a Mecklenburg County aquatic center that’s much larger than the one wrapping up construction right now in Hoke County. It gave them a feel for the impact such a facility can make in a community, the chairman explained.

“Seeing the people who were utilizing it, different age groups – seniors, young people – we’re excited about what it will bring to our community. We think with Hoke County growing at such a rapid pace, a lot of people who are moving here, they have an expectation of what should be in a community,” Thomas said. “We hope to continue to bring the amenities that not only what people who are moving here expect, but what people who have lived here all their lives deserve. We’re excited about the prospect of having what we would call a game-changer in our community.”

Another potential game-changer is utilities and other infrastructure development in the works. Sewer service expansion in the Rockfish area, in particular, but also water capacity increases in the western part of Hoke, and sewer expansion along the parts of U.S. 401 that don’t already have service are among the efforts to aid in the county’s growth and development.

The commissioners also plan to prioritize working with the Hoke County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center on tentative plans for building a shelter. Currently, Hoke County does not have a shelter for those escaping domestic violence, or for homeless individuals or families.

The county received about $750,000 in grant funding that could be used for the project. Now the board is hoping to find the best way to use that money.

“During our retreat we did discuss different ideas of how a shelter could be managed and utilized here in Hoke County,” Thomas said. That was the initial plan, and the county is “still in the process of speaking with them to see if they would be interested in managing such a facility,” he said.

“That’s a difficult thing, we’re looking at other options in the event they simply don’t have the capacity to run a facility like that,” Thomas said. He added that the board is open to ideas from the public about how best to implement such a shelter.

Even with all the construction projects in the works, Hoke County taxpayers can expect to see the property tax rate stay where it is at 73 cents per $100 valuation, Thomas said. In 2022 the county board cut taxes by two cents from the previous 75-cent per $100 valuation rate. It’s not going back up this year, Thomas said.

“Before I agreed to that decrease, I wanted to insure that we wouldn’t be see-sawing…our finance staff, they were pretty confident that there would be no need for a tax increase this year. And quite frankly the votes aren’t there on the board to increase taxes, so I can say very confidently that taxes will not be going up in Hoke County in 2023,” the chairman said.

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