County officials discuss pros and cons of Connect NC bond

Published 6:22 pm Friday, March 4, 2016

CAROLINE HUDSON | DAILY NEWS LOCAL PERKS: Mark Nelson, vice president of administrative services at BCCC, discussed the benefits the college would see as a result of the Connect NC bond at Thursday’s Committee of 100 meeting.

LOCAL PERKS: Mark Nelson, vice president of administrative services at BCCC, discussed the benefits the college would see as a result of the Connect NC bond at Thursday’s Committee of 100 meeting.

As the March 15 primary election looms, more and more talk has revolved around the $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum.

What started out as a transportation- and infrastructure-centered plan in the General Assembly soon molded into a different, multi-faceted bond proposal, and its spot as a referendum on the primary ballot has sparked much attention.

On Thursday, the Committee of 100 welcomed Mark Nelson of Beaufort County Community College and East Carolina University Provost Ron Mitchelson to its March luncheon to speak on the matter.

Beaufort County Community College has left no question about its support of the bond, as the college would receive more than $6.5 million in funds from it.

Nelson, who serves as vice president of administrative services at BCCC, said the majority of that money would go toward a Public Safety Training Complex.

According to a press release, the complex would “include a (500-foot-by-600-foot) driving pad to conduct required training for law enforcement and emergency personnel, classrooms and storage buildings and a ‘burn building’ or state-of-the-art building for training firefighters.”

Plans for the complex have been in the works since at least 2005, and Nelson said it would be an improvement for the college and the region as a whole.

Mitchelson also said he thinks the referendum is a regional issue.

At the Committee of 100 meeting, he said ECU would receive about $90 million from the bond, thus paving the way for the construction of a 150,000-square-foot biotechnology and life sciences building.

“I can tell you, at ECU, we’re bursting at the seams,” Mitchelson said. “Like you, I believe in investment.”

He said the last bond funneling this kind of money into eastern North Carolina was in 2000, and while that bond was $3 billion, the Connect NC bond is more diverse.

If passed, the Connect NC bond money would be invested in higher education, parks, infrastructure, the North Carolina Zoo and public safety, according to a memorandum.

Mitchelson said he believes the debt service, which is the money required to repay a debt, would not exceed 3.5 percent of the state’s general revenue fund.

“(There is) plenty of room in the current budget to cover this debt,” he said. “It’s good for our region. It’s good for the economic development of our region.”

ECU also compiled statements from students and staff in support of the Connect NC bond.

Morgan Boyd, an ECU biology student from Beaufort County, wrote that she has always been interested in science, from nature to health care to sports medicine. She wrote that she thinks investing in these fields is important for the whole area.

“I plan to be able to give back to my rural community, which made me the woman that I am today, through medical practice or research-oriented work in the future,” Boyd wrote.

Dr. Elizabeth Ables, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at ECU, also stated that the money from Connect NC would be of great help to the infrastructure of the biology department.

“We have so many biology majors, it’s really imperative that we are able to upgrade the space. That building is from the 1960s, and some interior changes have been made to it, but a lot of the lecture halls are not conducive to some of the current methods that we use for education,” Ables wrote.

The positive endorsements and support of the bond have left some thinking it may be too good to be true, however.

At a Beaufort County Board of Education meeting on March 1, the board discussed the matter and confirmed to the public that they would not be receiving any funds from the bond.

Some of the board members expressed concerns as to the repayment burden that taxpayers would be forced to withstand. Statewide groups against the bond have criticized it as a “debt deal” and questioned whether the accumulating interest will really be all that affordable.

“A lot of money is being promised and being directed to a lot of things that are good, but not necessarily needed,” board member Mike Isbell said. “I would hesitate to vote for it myself if we were getting some discretionary money.”

Board chairman Terry Williams said he thinks people are getting the wrong idea about how the money will be spent. Even if the school district had been allocated some of the money, the board would not get to decide how to spend a chunk of money, but rather be allotted money based on needed projects, Williams explained.

Isbell said he is also not happy with the way the bond has been advertised, as there is much more to it than the phrase, “Invest in our future.”

“Who’s going to vote against our future?” Isbell said. “I think it is very deceptive and vague.”