Unanswered tax question complicates school board’s decision

The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County will meet tonight during a special meeting that is expected to be brief and during which it appears certain that enough votes exist to make a request of the county Board of Commissioners for permission to buy about 48 acres of land on N.C. 711, not far from Pinecrest Country Club.

The negotiated price of $192,000 appears to be too good of a deal to pass on and, from what we hear, the votes exist on the county commissioners to grant approval. School officials envision placing the central office there because it must be moved away from the Lumber River and to higher ground if the Federal Emergency Management Agency is going to chip in on the cost, which has been estimated at about $35 million.

The school system also plans to consolidate some other administrative offices on the same site as the central office, which we believe makes sense, saving dollars while promoting communication and efficiency.

The commissioners are likely to vote after hearing a sales pitch from the owner of the Native Angels building at COMtech, where central office employees have worked since the now abandoned central office was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. That building and an adjoining 29 acres have been dangled for $6.3 million, which would suggest it would be a bargain for taxpayers.

We have said in this space that if the central office is not moved to COMtech, it should not be because of the Pembroke vs. Lumberton and, if you prefer, Lumberton vs. Pembroke tension in this county that is racial in nature. That is based on the truth that COMtech is closer than five miles from the N.C. 711 site apparently favored by the school board.

But there are real issues with the Native Angels property, including its presentation, which does not suggest a school headquarters, and insufficient space. Millions could be spent and that option still be much less costly than building ground up, but it’s not clear that Native Angels could be suitably modified.

We have also learned that a third site, a warehouse off of N.C. 41, has been suggested, but we don’t know of its potential suitability, except that it too would require extensive renovations.

The part of the math that has been missing is this: While it has been suggested that a tax rate is looming in order to build not only a central office but also a new school to replace West Lumberton Elementary at a cost of at least $25 million, the specifics are agonizingly missing. County Manager Ricky Harris has only said one would be needed if the total cost goes beyond $50 million. We think that figure is a bit high.

Ultimately the commissioners will decide on any tax hike, and we know they would do so only if no other choice existed. A tax increase could also be cleverly disguised when revaluation is completed next year.

Another missing number is how much money FEMA ultimately will send this way to defray the costs of both buildings, but we know it will be woefully short of what will be needed.

Although the potential tax hike is an unknown, the school system needs to save every dollar that is reasonable, and if there is a place to skimp it should be the central office, and not in the new school.

The tax question remains a big unanswered question, and when the times come, local taxpayers are not going to like the answer.