DSS building still making sparks fly

Published 1:15 pm Friday, September 10, 2010

Some Polk County commissioners were taken to task Monday when residents questioned the process the county used to plan the construction of a new department of social services (DSS) building.

Commissioners Cindy Walker, Ray Gasperson and Rene McDermott recently voted to begin accepting bids for construction of the new building. Bids were opened yesterday with 23 contractors purchasing plans, according to Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson. The bids were not available as of press time yesterday.

Commissioner Watson said he would have preferred the final drawings be reviewed by the board prior to going out to bid.

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Walker presented a slideshow Monday of photos of recent grading work at the site. She, Gasperson and McDermott defended the process the board has used in the development of the building.

During citizen comments, several residents, primarily Ernie Smith and Debbie Arceneaux, questioned commissioners about the building.

Sparks flew after board chair Walker asked the audience to stop clapping during citizen comments; one resident calling Walker unprofessional for doing so. McDermott said Walkers actions were completely appropriate as proper decorum must be kept in meetings. Commissioner Warren Watson agreed that order must be maintained.

Smith asked commissioners why grading was done without plans. Whitson responded that the county approved building plans earlier this summer and he would be happy to go over them with Smith.

Smith said hes been reading the paper cover to cover about the DSS building. He expressed concern over the idea of housing mental health facilities in the building, saying it would open up the possibility of having registered sex offenders close to children at the nearby middle school and park. By N.C. law, registered sex offenders are prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a school, but other restrictions that may apply are not clear.

In initial discussions when the current board chose the county owned property at the recreation park as the site for the DSS building, plans did not include housing mental health facilities at that site.

If the county is not considering placing mental health services at the new DSS building, Smith said, then the county is considering building two buildings.

Im a guy thats tired of reading about it in the paper, said Smith. Wheres my money being spent? This isnt Obama healthcare. The taxpayers would like to know up front what its costing us.

Arceneaux questioned what she described as Walker, Gasperson and McDermotts rush to construct the building in a depressed economy. She said the countys venture and the waste of space in the building should be considered questionable at best.

She said the site is a mistake, especially considering the increased traffic at the middle school site. She said the county hasnt thought about the school the teachers and parents nor has there been any community involvement in the plans. And with the current economy, she said, the county should be considering its reserves.

This board seems to have no discipline about saving for a rainy day, Arceneaux said. You are micro-managing my tax dollars and that of our citizens.

The new DSS building has been a topic of disagreement, with the county board being split 3-2 on some decisions.

Walker, Gasperson and McDermott have voted in favor of moving forward with plans on the estimated $1.733 million project, while commissioners Tommy Melton and Watson have expressed concern over the building being planned with seven vacant offices. Gasperson, McDermott and Walker say the county needs to plan for the future, keeping in mind the history of growth in the DSS office.

All commissioners agree a new DSS building is needed because of the poor condition and costly maintenance needs of the Jervey Palmer building in Tryon.

Only DSS and mental health services currently are located there. The Meeting Place Senior Center and Veterans Services were moved to the former Carolina Classical School last year after the county purchased that property.

The issue has come to a head recently after commissioner Melton submitted a letter to the editor and commissioners&bsp; Gasperson, McDermott and Walker submitted a combined letter to the editor, both of which ran in the Friday, Aug. 27 Bulletin.

The combined letter was also brought up by resident Don Hofmann on Monday. Hofmann said the letter signed by three commissioners violated the open meetings law.

But McDermott said the three never met regarding the letter; it was put together with only two commissioners speaking at a time.

Youve jumped to another conclusion, McDermott said. There was no meeting whatsoever.

Hofmann also said it is possible that is not the first time Walker, Gasperson and McDermott have met on an issue. He said the three came to a meeting with a PowerPoint presentation regarding naming the building, and the other two commissioners were not aware that the presentation was going to be made.

Walker responded that she met only with Gasperson before she created the PowerPoint presentation; two commissioners are allowed to meet.

To imply that we are meeting in an illegal manner is very close to libelous, Walker said.

Hofmann responded that he respects their responses, but three commissioner signatures without a disclaimer gave the implication that the three commissioners offered that letter together.

A couple of years ago, the former board of commissioners purchased two acres on Park Street to construct a new DSS building. The former board included Melton and Watson, but not Gasperson, McDermott and Walker.

The new board decided not to construct on the Park Street site because of several issues, including space for future expansions, some possible sewer issues and traffic concerns.

Construction of the new DSS building is scheduled to begin this fall, and the facility could be open next year.

The controversy over the DSS building has become an issue in the county commissioner election this November. The seats of commissioners Gasperson (D), Melton (Unaffiliated) and Watson (Unaffiliated) will be decided in November. All incumbents are running for re-election, and challengers David Moore (R), Margaret Johnson (D), Tom Pack (R), Ted Owens (R) and Benny Smith (D) also vying for the seats.