LUMBERTON — Raymond Cummings, the chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, is continuing to push for the purchase of the Native Angels building, citing a need for haste because he was told there was a potential buyer.
He is doing so despite pushback by school administrators, including school board Chairman Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, who has said the building doesn’t work as a central office and that Cummings, director of Transportation for the school system, had no business even voting on the issue.
Although Cummings says he has been told there is a potential buyer for the building, fellow Commissioner David Edge told The Robesonian the lease allows the school system to use it through October.
On Wednesday it was decided that there would be public comment on the issue on Monday night during the meeting of the county commissioners.
Cummings wants the building, located at COMtech near Pembroke, to become the new central office for the Public Schools of Robeson County, either permanently or temporarily until the schools find a new location. Central office staff have been using about 9,000 of the building’s 35,000 square feet since the system’s former central office was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. The system is paying $9,000 a month, $108,000 a year, to the building’s owner, Angel Exchange.
Angel Exchange is about $95,000 delinquent in paying property taxes, and also owes COMtech more than $40,000 in fees. Edge has said if the building is to be purchased, the county should foreclose on it and buy at auction.
In a telephone conversation, Cummings said that the schools have until July 31 in the Native Angels building, when its lease runs out.
“We can do this and not raise taxes,” he said of the $6 million price tag for the building. “We met with the school board in October, and they were talking about a $28 million or $30 million central 0ffice.”
The schools will receive money from insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the amount and the timing are unknown. The Robesonian has heard figures ranging from $12 million to $20 million.
Cummings expects a crowd on Monday, but the decision has been made not to move to a larger venue. Cummings expects a packed house. Wilkins-Chavis wants to speak.
“We don’t want the building,” Wilkins-Chavis said Wednesday. “The employees don’t want the building.”
She wants the building in Lumberton.
“We want to be at the county seat,” said Wilkins-Chavis, a longtime teacher who is from Saddletree. “We want to move out of Native Angels as soon as possible.”
Other permanent locations that have been floated include the county’s administrative offices on Elm Street, which will be available when the county moves into the old BB&T building, a warehouse on N.C. 41, and property off N.C. 711 that the school system recently purchased that is about five miles from Native Angels.
As for a temporary location, Wilkins-Chavis said that will be worked out between now and July 31.
“We’ll be somewhere,” she said.
Edge, who was absent when the board split 4-3 to authorize negotiations to purchase, said the contract is good through July 31, and it includes an option to extend three months, until Oct. 31.
Edge says he sees nothing in the contract that allows for an earlier eviction.
Wilkins-Chavis said the news of the commissioners’ vote came as a shock. She said people have been calling her, and they are upset.
“I can’t keep my phone charged, I’m getting so many calls about this,” she said. “No, they (the commissioners) did not call me before the vote.”
Wilkins-Chavis said several options were discussed between the school board and the county commission last fall. But Cummings said other options will take time, and that is why the Native Angels building is needed.
“That is three or four years down the road,” Cummings said. “We don’t have financing to renovate the entire building at this point.
“They can stay in the Native Angels building until everything is worked out.”
County Manager Ricky Harris said that BB&T building is scheduled to be occupied in January 2019, and that financing has not even been sought.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the county board will accept public comment on Monday, but The Robesonian learned of that 90 minutes before the noon deadline that day.
Typically public comment is only allowed during the second meeting of the month, which is on the third Monday.
County Manager Ricky Harris said there are no plans to move the venue away from the county administrative building on Elm Street in Lumberton to accommodate a larger crowd.
Cummings has been the most vocal proponent of buying the building. He was joined by Commissioners Roger Oxendine, Jerry Stephens and Berlester Campbell in telling Harris to begin negotiations to buy the building. Oxendine has said he only voted to negotiate, not buy, and Campbell has said he did not intend for Native Angels to be a permanent location.
Commissioners Tom Taylor, Lance Herndon and Noah Woods voted against.