Robbie Ferris and the folks at First Floor Energy Positive are getting another crack at the public cash trough. With former House majority leader Mike Hager leading the lobbying effort (and a whole lot of cash being sprinkled into key Jones Street pockets) their plan to build solar powered schools and lease them back to local governments is one step closer to reality:
A bill making its way through the General Assembly could resurrect a local effort to build new schools in Robeson County.
The head of a firm that had a plan last year to consolidate Robeson County schools, shuttering some schools and building new ones, believes the 2017 version of the bill would allow for a similar proposal.
“If the bill passes, it would allow for most of what was proposed last year,” Robbie Ferris said in an email to The Robesonian.
The legislation, which easily passed the House and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, is called the School Construction Flexibility Act. It is aimed at allowing local school decision makers more flexibility to enter into leases for school buildings and other facilities.
House Bill 600 passed the House with a 116-2 vote Tuesday, with all Robeson County’s representatives voting in favor. If it passes the Senate as currently written, it would allow counties to enter into lease agreements with developers for new schools and administration buildings.
Robeson County Reps. Brenden Jones and Ken Goodman are primary sponsors on the bill.
“It really helps all of our counties, all of our counties are strapped, and we can’t come up with the upfront money,” Goodman said. “This puts them in the business of building schools without the capital expenditures up front.”
Goodman believes that the option to lease new school buildings would be of great benefit to cash-strapped counties such as Robeson. The bill focuses on Tier 1 counties, the poorest third in North Carolina, of which Robeson is one.
Previous attempts at similar legislation have run into problems that Goodman believes this bill avoids.
“They used money that was designating teaching positions,” Goodman said. “But if you started to grow, and you needed teachers again, you ran into problems. This bill has safeguards in it.”
HB 600 specifically states that school boards can use any money for leases “except for funds allotted to the classroom teacher allotment category and the teacher assistant allotment category.”
Other safeguards include a more robust bidding process when selecting a developer, with public bidding and then the top three candidates being evaluated.[…]
*Oh, really? When, previously, have school administrators ever paid attention to restrictions handed down by Raleigh on what they could and could not spend money on? * In Horry County, Ferris’s group got selected even though there was a competitive bidding process and they were not the low bidder.
Here’s Mike Hager celebrating his “win” on Facebook:
Saine AND Bell? (Oh, there had to be some serious $$$$$$ involved there. New clothes, perhaps?)
Ferris’s group already has the exact same deal underway in South Carolina. Ferris and his team are also having a big fight with Horry County officials over project transparency that looks to be headed to the courtroom. Now, we’re learning from the South Carolina drivebys that Horry County officials had legal concerns over the arrangement with Ferris & co. right off the bat:
Less than 14 hours after Horry County’s school board approved $220 million worth of contracts for five new schools in 2015, the builder, First Floor Energy Positive, emailed the district and asked to get paid. Robbie Ferris, the company’s CEO, requested approximately $5 million for designing the schools.
Ara Heinz, an Horry County Schools district staffer who handles procurement, appeared to not know what happened after a board meeting on the night before. “I’m assuming we have fully executed contracts?” she wrote to district staff 15 minutes after Ferris’ email.
Heinz found out a few minutes later the contracts had been signed, another email suggests. “Before we proceed…I have a few concerns that are somewhat legal in nature,” Heinz wrote. “I was informed that the board chair [Joe Defeo] signed the contracts last night, and I’d like confirmation that it’s allowable.”
MMMkay. Seriously, folks. Are our guys and gals on Jones Street merely setting us up for some of the same heartburn South Carolina taxpayers are experiencing right now?
Back to NC now:
Ferris said that the county could use money saved from maintenance, fewer salaries through attrition, and energy — the schools were to run entirely on solar power — to make the payments. But the plan depended on legislation being passed by the General Assembly allowing the system to use some state money for the mortgage, and even though it was approved easily by the Senate, it died on the vine in the House. The turning point was when the state Treasurer’s Office fought hard to defeat the bill, saying the county couldn’t afford it and put it a fiscal risk.
Is it saving money there? In Horry County, they’ve got multi-million dollar project cost overruns.
Another method of financing local schools has been through the sale of bonds, but County Manager Ricky Harris said last year that if the county were to sell $75 million worth of bonds, that would only be enough for two schools and the tax increase could be as high as 20 cents. Harris said last year that the Ferris plan would probably mean a tax hike of about 5 cents.
Tax hikes and bond issues for the poorest counties in the state. They’re already stretched thin on their budgets. (And WHO is on the hook if these folks run into trouble paying off these bonds?) Former state treasurer Janet Cowell had serious concerns about this kind of arrangement. Paging Mr. Folwell. Mr. Dale Folwell.