Our local board of commissioners met for their regular monthly meeting this past Tuesday night, and since they have decided that it’s not important to publish meeting minutes, or to even write them up, I guess it’s time to start keeping an eye on things again.
My understanding is that because they finally installed a proper camera to record their meetings keeping those state-mandated minutes became an unnecessary burden on our clerk and her office staff. I have to ask: how hard would it be to go through each month’s agenda and insert a short description of each item and outcomes of the discussion or votes? And why aren’t the videos being published on the town’s website? Not everyone uses Facebook, nor do all citizens have access to a high-speed internet connection to watch videos.
Anyway, the first discussion item on the agenda was a presentation by our planning and zoning (P&Z) consultant, Brandon Emory, explaining what extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) is and why the town needs to adopt one. During or just after that discussion, Commissioner Parrish moved to change the composition of our planning board so that two of its members can be appointed from outside our municipal limits. The wording used included the phrase, “outside citizens”.
It would have been one thing if this motion had been presented and passed after the adoption of an ETJ, and worded to ensure that the two “outside citizens” reside within the ETJ, but that’s not what happened. What happened is Mr. Parrish effectively pushed through a change that, whether we adopt an ETJ or not, will now allow the board of commissioners to legally seat planning board members who might live just outside our municipal limits or who might reside in other counties, undermining the complaints of those who see that practice as unethical.
Once an ETJ is adopted I don’t see a problem with allowing a minority of the planning board members to be drawn from that area. But the way this change was worded and the timing of its enactment, before holding a public hearing on ETJ, let alone adopting one, is highly suspect. One might claim that this was not Commissioner Parrish’s intention, but it is the practical result. Words matter, especially when it comes to law and government. A public hearing on the subject of ETJ is scheduled for the February commissioners’ meeting.
Speaking of the planning board, two new members were sworn in at Tuesday’s meeting: Mr. Benware and Mrs. Flatt. I hope that they bring much-needed insight and balance to that committee.
Representatives from Republic Services gave a short presentation about options for establishing a residential recycling program in Ramseur. It boils down to an additional cost per household of $5 – $7 per month for a bi-weekly bin pick-up similar to how our weekly garbage service works, or a centralized drop-box location that would also incur additional costs to the town and require regular monitoring to ensure proper usage of the container. Either option will cost us something, but that’s a decision for a later date.
In other business, the board accepted the resignation of Commissioner McIntosh and agreed to contract with Arnold Allred to assume ORC duties Mr. McIntosh had been providing. Chapter 90 of our North Carolina General Statutes (NCGS) defines ORC as “the person designated by a person owning or having control of a water pollution control system as the operator of record of the water pollution control system and who has primary responsibility for the operation of such system.”
Commissioner Brower was selected to assume the duties of mayor pro tem, and the board adopted a reshuffling of commissioner duties suggested by Commissioner Parrish. Most municipal commissioners in North Carolina municipalities are elected to make policy decisions for others (managers and department heads) to carry out, but in Ramseur, we still rely on the archaic mayor/council system of government. This method leaves three to five elected citizens to manage the day-to-day administration of our local government and our money.
The excuse offered for not adopting a council/manager form of government, which requires a simple change to the town’s corporate charter and would mandate hiring a town manager, is always that we can’t afford to do that. That excuse is pretty stale these days given the disarray this board inherited and the number of part-time employees and high-priced consultants they’ve spent our money on in recent years.
Other discussions and decisions Tuesday night involved adjusting 401K contributions so that all town employees are treated equally. Apparently, our police officers were receiving a 5% match to their contributions, but employees from other departments were only receiving 2.5% matches. That should never have happened and, if I understood the votes taken Tuesday night, will be corrected in the next annual budget cycle.
There was also a discussion about after-hours emergency response calls across all service departments. There was much back and forth and suggestions made that people should simply call 911, whether calling about a broken water pipe, a building on fire, a robbery in progress, or the proverbial cat up a tree. Commissioner Parrish pointed out that many citizens are reluctant to call 911 for anything but a true emergency requiring police, fire, or EMT response. The concept no one privileged to speak during the meeting seemed able to articulate is an on-call roster or rotation.
I spent almost twenty years working as a contract utility technician and part of my job involved participation in an after-hours call-out schedule. Every week a different technician was handed a pager, or in later years a cell phone. If a call came in after hours the person on call was expected to answer and respond within a mandated period of time.
The same principle could be applied here: employees from different departments could be assigned to a rotation and a mobile phone with a published non-emergency number handed off as each person’s turn comes up. The person on-call would have access to a list of contacts across all departments and once assessed, appropriate personnel from the affected department could be contacted and the issue managed. It’s not that complicated at all.
Commissioner Parrish moved that the town stop sending appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, and water heaters to the county landfill, which incurs a significant expense, and suggested that instead, we begin sending those items and “anything metal” to Asheboro Recycling where they will pay us for many of those items; smart move.
The board also approved payment of just over $46,000 for chemicals and professional lab services needed at the water and/or wastewater treatment plants and a little over $5,000 for needed equipment: a larger trailer for moving equipment around town more efficiently, and a “thumb” to assist in removing thorny brush and tangled vines during pick-up operations.
The board also moved to spend just over $64,500 for new SCADA equipment which will make maintenance and monitoring of our wastewater pump stations much more efficient. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. It is a category of software applications for gathering data in real time from remote locations in order to control equipment and conditions.
These purchases were necessary, but as costs for chemicals, lab services, and equipment will only go up in the future, we, as citizens, need to spend some time learning about the different options we may have for contolling the costs of obtaining clean water and managing our wastewater. Big decisions will need to be made sooner than you might think, such as whether we should form a local water authority with surrounding communities or join an already established authority in the region, among other possibilities. If you didn’t attend the special meeting on this subject a few weeks ago, please follow this link and educate yourself.
Commissioner Parrish spoke about a complaint from an anonymous person who claimed to have witnessed excessive garbage on our Rail Trail, as well as witnessing someone shooting drugs with a needle there. Obviously, no one wants to see drug use or other criminal activity in any of our public spaces, but I find it odd that other board members and officials in the room reported visiting the trail and seeing very little trash on the ground. Chief Presley stated that he investigated that report as soon as it came to his attention and found no evidence, such as needles on the ground.
That’s not to say that this incident did not happen as reported by Commissioner Parrish, but if you witnessed such disturbing activity and felt strongly enough about it to call a commissioner, wouldn’t you have first called 911 to report it? The excuse given Tuesday night was that the complainant had “bad cell service”. I find that difficult to accept; Ramseur has good cellular coverage.
Mr. Parrish has a long-standing habit of relaying statements based on anonymous reports to himself. I’m not saying these reports are not genuine; I have contacted him myself once or twice about non-emergency issues in my own neighborhood. But I do find it mighty convenient that no one ever seems to report these incidents to other board members, a police officer, or 911. Perhaps a few game cameras could be installed on the trail to provide some corroboration to these reports that too often seem more like gaslighting and sensationalism than anything else.
There was also a discussion about purchasing an off-road vehicle that police, fire, and public works could share in order to better access hard-to-reach places such as the Rail Trail or some of our cross-country utility easements. The cost mentioned was in the $16,000 to $24,000 range. That seemed a bit excessive since used ATVs can be had for $1000, maybe less, and would serve the same purpose. At that price, we could probably buy and outfit one for each department and still not approach the cost suggested above.
Commissioner Brower led a brief discussion about the need to hire someone to work a few hours each week cleaning the town hall, on the order of $50 to $60 per week. That proposal was tabled because the town is so cash-strapped that less than $300 per month for basic custodial services might break us.
The board also approved hiring an administrative assistant for the police department, offering $15/hour and approximately twenty hours per week. This would free the chief and Captain Jessup to spend more time outside the office, taking pressure off the other officers on duty. Not a bad thing, but I have to wonder why no one considered simply sharing an existing employee from the administrative office. Yes, budgets are affected in both departments, but those issues can be easily resolved. Of course, additional hours might qualify someone for full-time benefits, so there’s that to consider too I guess.
In administrative business, Commissioner Kearns (formerly known as Commissioner Hooker) suggested – despite advice from legal counsel that it was unnecessary – pushed through a motion to require the clerk to hand-deliver and obtain a signature from each board member, a paper receipt acknowledging notice of special called meetings and their agendas. North Carolina’s statutes are very clear regarding special meetings, what can be discussed, and how far in advance such meetings must be announced. Maybe Commissioner Kearns has never heard of things like email receipts or text messages, both of which show times and dates of delivery as well as preserving a written record of what was communicated.
Action was also taken to remove Mr. McIntosh as an authorized signatory to our bank accounts. Commissioner Parrish seemed adamant about adding not only Commissioner Brower, the new mayor pro tem, as is proper, but also adding Commissioner Kearns as well.
Had that measure passed there would have been five people authorized to sign checks against our money: the mayor, mayor pro tem, clerk, deputy clerk, and Commissioner Kearns. After receiving significant pushback against the idea, Commissioner Parrish withdrew his motion and only the new mayor pro tem was added to the bank accounts.
Finally, it was announced that the budget audit for the fiscal year 2019-20 has been completed, and documents for the 2020-21 budget had been forwarded to the auditors, pending approval of a contract authorizing that work to proceed. These audits are extremely important because failure to complete them prevents our town from qualifying for and receiving many state grants we would otherwise be eligible to use.
There were a few other items discussed, such as what to do about a maturing certificate of deposit that had to be addressed due to time constraints imposed by the bank, and local artwork on display at the municipal building. This month the artist is local photographer, Gloria Spinks. Next month’s artist will be Darrell Williams (hope I got that name right, apologies if I didn’t).
Upcoming local government meetings:
January 25th at 6:30 p.m. – Planning and Zoning monthly meeting
February 20th at 6:00 p.m. – ABC monthly meeting
February 21 at 6:30 p.m. – Board of Commissioners monthly meeting