LUMBERTON — What was Commissioner David Edge’s first reaction to hearing that his fellow commissioners had voted Monday to buy the Native Angels building and accompanying land?
“The first thing I thought was I hope it’s a joke,” Edge said Tuesday.
And then he suggested fellow commissioners might be getting kickbacks.
Edge was not present when the commissioners voted 4-3 to buy the building and 29 acres of land, which had been pitched for months to the commissioners and the county school board as a possible new school district central office. Owner Bobbie Jacobs Ghaffar’s asking price was $6.2 million. The taxable value of the building and land is $3,797,500, according to the county Tax Office, and the last taxes paid on it were in August.
Regardless of value, County Manager Ricky Harris said the $6 million or so to buy the building and land near COMtech in Pembroke must be found. Six million dollars amounts to about 11 cents of the county’s 77-cent tax rate, which is about 25th highest in the state.
“No, we had not budgeted this,” he said.
The county staff has been instructed by the Board of Commissioners to examine financial avenues to come up with the money, Harris said.
“We’re meeting and working on this,” Harris said.
Commissioners Raymond Cummings, Berlester Campbell, Jerry Stephens and Roger Oxendine voted in favor of the purchase, and Tom Taylor, Lance Herndon and Noah Woods against. If Edge had been present, it would have died as a deadlock.
Edge didn’t pull any punches.
“My opinion is these guys are getting some sort of personal gain out of it,” said Edge, admitting he has no proof.
Edge believes that the real reason they voted to buy the property is because Ghaffar was facing foreclosure.
“They wanted to help her out,” he said said.
The commissioners also broke a gentleman’s agreement not to vote on major issues, such as big-ticket purchases, unless all the commissioners are present, he said.
“And this time they intentionally had this vote when I wasn’t there,” Edge said.
Edge wonders why the commissioners didn’t wait until the county could foreclose on the property before voting to buy it.
“If it was going to be foreclosed on and you wanted to buy it, you would wait for it to be foreclosed on and pick it up for a song and a dance,” Edge said.
Ghaffar owed $91,975.45 in property taxes on the Native Angels property as of Tuesday morning, according to County Attorney Patrick Pait. The taxes owed are from 2015, 2016, and 2017.
According to the county Tax Office, the total tax bill is $95,303.72. Of that amount, $91,975.45 is property taxes, the rest, more than $3,000, is for furnishings and office equipment. The last tax payment was made Aug. 21.
Cummings, chairman of the county board, said Monday’s purchase vote was an attempt to provide the Public Schools of Robeson County a cheaper option for a new central office building. But Campbell has said there are no long-term plans for the building to be the central office.
School board members and district leaders have been exploring the idea of building a new central office building and a new school with a combined estimated price tag of about $50 million.
The commissioners did not wait for foreclosure because the property had been on the market for several months and they did not want it to “get away from us,” Cummings said. If it did the PSRC could be placed in a position of having to vacate the office space the school district is renting at Native Angels before they are ready.
Cummings and other commissioners mentioned on Monday a potential buyer for the Native Angels property, which prompted the need to move fast.
“That was a comment Mr. Cummings made,” Harris said. “There was no buyer’s name mentioned during the meeting.”
Pait said he did not hear a potential buyer’s name mentioned Monday and is unaware of a potential buyer.
As for voting while Edge was absent, Cummings said, “We voted on several issues last night (Monday). Sometimes you just have to carry on even if someone is not there.”
The county has no plans to move its own personnel into the building once it is no longer needed by school district, he said.
“We’ll likely just give it to them,” Cummings said. “We haven’t talked about it.”
But the school system does not want the Native Angels building, Peggy Wilkins Chavis, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Education, said Tuesday. The district was making plans to vacate the building when the current lease agreement expires on July 31.
“That’s what we had in mind, to go to that time and vacate,” Chavis said.
District leaders are working on finding alternative office space for the PSRC personnel working in the Native Angels building, she said.
The commissioners’ action took school leaders by surprise, according to interim Superintendent Shanita Wooten.
“No one in senior leadership knew of this,” Wooten said.
Nor was anyone from the central office involved in discussions with county commissioners about buying the Native Angels building or land, she said.
The commissioners had to move fast because Ghaffar had come before them and said she had a buyer for the Native Angels property, said Campbell, vice chairman of the board.
“It’s to relieve their minds of some tension,” Campbell said.
Commissioner Stephens said he remembers either Ghaffar or someone else saying during a meeting at the Department of Social Services building on Nov. 6 that someone was looking at the Native Angels property with the intent of buying it.
“I did hear her say it or someone else said it,” Stephens said.
A check of the minutes from the Nov. 6 meeting provided by county government revealed no mention in open session by Ghaffar or anyone else that a potential buyer existed.
“Some disinformation has gotten out there,” Commissioner Oxendine said.
He then suggested no deal is done. The commissioners voted Monday only to allow the county manager to negotiate a good price on the property, he said.
“That was my intention. That was what I agreed on, to enter into negotiations,” Oxendine said.
Harris would then come back to the board with the best price he could get, then the commissioners would vote on whether or not to pursue buying the building and property, he said.
“I think we would (buy the property) and then offer it to the school board, as bad as they need schools,” Oxendine said.
Cummings sees the vote differently.
“We voted to purchase the property,” he said.
Commissioner Taylor said Tuesday that Monday’s vote took him completely by surprise. There is no reason to spend $6 million to buy a building that hasn’t been appraised, he said.
“We don’t need to be buying that property because it doesn’t have a purpose for us,” Taylor said.
The school district and the commissioners should be working together to make the county better, and to do what’s best for Robeson County’s residents and its children, he said.
“Our kids are more important than that building is to me,” Taylor said.
The commissioners work for the taxpayers, he said. They are supposed to make sound decisions.
“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” Taylor said.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.