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Mayor chided over letter to attorney general

Moments before the City Council voted for a resolution in response to an alleged lack of good service locally by Suddenlink, Councilman Andre Knight had a message for Mayor Sandy Roberson.

During Monday’s council meeting, Knight told Roberson about reading the story in Thursday’s Telegram that Roberson was firing off a letter to state Attorney General Josh Stein and being surprised the letter was sent without the council seeing the text first.

The Telegram also confirmed Roberson was carbon-copying the letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and state legislators representing the Rocky Mount area.

The letter, like one from Tarboro Mayor Joe Pitt sent to Stein on Dec. 31, called for Stein to investigate the business practices of the cable television and internet services giant Suddenlink and its parent company Altice USA.

The City Council discussed concerns about Suddenlink during the Jan. 11 council meeting.

During Monday’s council meeting, Knight cited the minutes of the Jan. 11 council meeting to point out he at the time asked about — and consideration was given to — the preparation and adoption of a resolution supporting the expansion of broadband.

Knight also cited the minutes to point out the council agreed to direct that the resolution be prepared and placed on the Jan. 25 council meeting agenda for consideration.

“But when I read the local newspaper, it seems to say that the council was slow in providing the resolution and that it prompted you to send the letter to the governor,” Knight told Roberson.

Knight also told Roberson of receiving the letter a couple days after the letter was sent to Cooper.

Knight told Roberson he does not know if Roberson is operating out of the mayor’s official office at City Hall or the former office of the Poyner Spruill law firm, which is Roberson’s business office.

Knight made clear to Roberson he would like the council members to be carbon-copied such letters in the future “so that we won’t be surprised when we read it in the newspaper,” because he believes the Telegram has a tendency sometimes to slant information.

Knight also said it would have been great if City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney and City Attorney Jep Rose would have been aware of the letter.

After the resolution was quickly approved on a motion by Knight, Roberson said he made a mistake and apologized to the council but emphasized this was an initiative in which a number of mayors in the area were making inquiries.

Roberson also made clear his belief there had been an acknowledgment on Jan. 11 that Suddenlink was an issue and that “I did want fully the support of the council to strengthen that position that we’ve made — and I think we’ve done that tonight.”

Roberson said, “Going forward, I will make a better attempt to make sure you guys are certainly in the loop, because it’s important that we work as a team — and that we move forward to address issues in the City of Rocky Mount that are important to our residents.”

The resolution urges Cooper and the General Assembly to recognize that expanded broadband service is critical for the success of business and education.

The resolution also urges Cooper and the General Assembly to establish a goal of making local broadband authority a priority and holding current broadband providers accountable for service to their customers.

The resolution also calls for local governments in North Carolina to be granted the authority to choose the best broadband service for their communities.


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Complaints about Suddenlink mount

Outlaw

The latest complaint about Suddenlink has come from a congressman who represents a large part of eastern North Carolina — and not only that, he published his gripe about the cable television and internet services giant on social media.

U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy of Greenville, a Republican elected in 2019, in a posting on Monday evening on Facebook told of simply wanting to change his credit card number on file with Suddenlink but of encountering both a company website not operating properly and impolite in-person treatment.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME SUDDENLINK????” Murphy said near the end of his posting. “You guys should be embarrassed about your poor customer service.”

He said he never mentioned his present position but told Suddenlink in the posting this is not the end of this issue.

“I have heard TOO MANY complaints from folks around here,” he said.

Murphy said he tried for half an hour on Suddenlink’s website to change his credit card number to no avail and said the website was not functional.

Murphy said he next tried the live online chat function and ended up on a chat line with a robot who could only direct him back to the non-functioning website.

He said the next day he called and remained on the line for more than an hour in an attempt to speak to a representative of Suddenlink and said he even drove to a Suddenlink location in Greenville as he continued to wait via phone.

He said after arriving at the location he was told by a person “we can’t do that, you have to go to the website” and that the person was rude and turned her back on him.

Murphy said in the meantime he was disconnected from the phone call and had to restart the process via phone to seek to get a representative of Suddenlink on the line.

Murphy said the second call took 30 minutes and that he was told to go to another website to enter his information, but that this website would not load what he had typed in.

He said the final Suddenlink representative he communicated with took mercy on him and fixed the problem.

Murphy, in a follow-up posting on Tuesday evening, said he wanted to let his constituents know that fixing the issues of unreliable internet service and of poor service by Suddenlink is one of his highest priorities.

Murphy in the follow-up posting said he and his staff spoke over the phone with Suddenlink representatives and that an executive-level call is set for next week.

“This issue is going to be fixed,” Murphy said. “Eastern NC deserves MUCH BETTER.”

Murphy’s complaint was brought to the attention of the Telegram on Tuesday morning by New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw.

The newspaper had contacted Outlaw to see whether his city had gone on record — like mayors of other municipalities in the eastern part of North Carolina — with letters to state Attorney General Josh Stein calling for action amid numerous complaints from Suddenlink customers.

Not only did Outlaw reply in the affirmative, but he also pointed out New Bern residents can go to his city’s website and send his city complaints about Suddenlink via an email address his city has set up for that purpose.

Outlaw referred to the law the General Assembly passed in 2011 to keep municipalities from creating local internet services, which critics called “Time Warner’s bill,” a reference to what was Time Warner Cable.

As a compromise, municipalities already providing internet service in their respective cities or towns, including Wilson, were grandfathered into the law.

Outlaw told the Telegram cities typically do not get into enterprise issues until there is a void in service for their communities.

Outlaw said, however, that, “In the case of New Bern, we have senior citizens that need internet connections for their own survival in these COVID times. We have children that are homeschooled and are out of school right now that need, desperately, a reliable service to do their homework.

“This being a technology-savvy world today, all of us need a connection,” Outlaw said. “It’s almost an inalienable right to be able to get reliable service.

“I’m planning on somebody helping us get Suddenlink out of North Carolina unless they want to improve on their service,” Outlaw added.

The Telegram on Jan. 1 reported that Tarboro town officials asked Stein to investigate the business practices of Suddenlink and parent company Altice USA.

A letter from Tarboro Mayor Joe Pitt noted the town constantly receives complaints regarding poor service from Suddenlink.

The Telegram on Thursday reported Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson was firing off a letter to Stein also requesting action, with the plan being to send copies to Gov. Roy Cooper and members of the Rocky Mount area’s legislative delegation.

On Monday evening, the Rocky Mount City Council approved a resolution supporting improved broadband access.

Officials with the Town of Nashville and the Town of Scotland Neck also provided the Telegram with letters their respective mayors have sent to Stein seeking action.

Nashville Mayor Brenda Brown, in signing the letter for her town, told Stein, “Please engage Suddenlink Communications/Altice USA’s corporate executives and reiterate the duty and responsibility they have to provide good quality and responsive services in the communities they have chosen to serve.”


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Local agencies extend COVID sick leave policies
Nash County, Nash County Public Schools, Nashville extend benefits

Even though the federal government no longer requires employers to provide sick leave to employees who are out of work because of COVID-19, at least three government entities in Nash County have voted in recent days to extend that benefit at their own expense.

Nash County, Nash County Public Schools and the Town of Nashville have adopted policies this month to extend these benefits in some form.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which required eligible employers to provide Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) to employees out of work due to COVID-related reasons, expired on Dec. 31, 2020, Nash County Human Resources Director Anison Kirkland told county commissioners at last week’s board meeting.

“As the cases of the virus continue to rise across the country and within our community, we are experiencing a substantial increase in the number of employees who are affected by the virus and are unable to work. Reports and statistics suggest that this trend may continue further into the 2021 calendar year,” Kirkland said.

Because of this trend, county staff recommended that commissioners adopt a policy to extend certain aspects of the FFCRA until March 31, at which time it would be further reviewed by the county. Under the plan, which was adopted unanimously by commissioners, employees will maintain their eligibility under certain conditions for up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for any EPSL balance that had not already been used before Jan. 1.

The plan would allow eligible employees to qualify for emergency paid sick leave if the employee is subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; has been advised by their health care provider to self-quarantine because they are infected with or have been exposed to COVID-19 or are at high risk of complications from COVID-19; or is showing symptoms of COVID-19 and actively seeking but not yet received a medical diagnosis.

The plan also has two other provisions designed to protect both the county and its employees. Under the terms of the plan, employees seeking compensation under this policy found solely to be taking this leave to defraud Nash County will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.

However, Nash County will not retaliate against any employee who requests to take county EPSL in accordance with the policy.

Nash County Manager Zee Lamb said he and his staff have been “kicking around” the idea for weeks.

“The situation is that more than 200 county employees utilized this sick leave before the end of the year, but there are still others that are showing symptoms or being told to stay home now,” he said. “We want to be able to give those employees the same benefit that the other employees were given for the same situation.”

Lamb also said that leave for day care situations is not included in the plan.

Nash County adopted the plan on Jan. 19, the same day Nash County Public Schools adopted a similar plan for school district employees. As with the Nash County plan, the leave can only be approved for employees who have not already used their FFCRA leave.

The school district plan also allows for the leave to be used by employees caring for a person subject to a COVID-related quarantine or caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to COVID-19.

At a special called school board meeting on Jan. 18, Sheila Wallace, executive director of human resources and federal programs for Nash County Public Schools, said the benefits of providing COVID leave approval would be that the employees would have up to 80 hours of emergency leave that would not affect their accrued leave. The decision also would make schools eligible for substitutes in these cases, she said.

However, this decision also means that the school district will be assuming the cost of a substitute in these cases in addition to paying the salary of the employee for up to 80 hours. The cost of this would be borne by the state if the employee is paid by the state, Wallace said, but it would be paid by the school district for other positions such as teacher assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria staff.

Wallace and school board attorney Rod Malone said that some of these costs could be defrayed under circumstances where employees qualify for Contagious Disease Leave, which is paid by the state.

“This type of leave is available when the health department orders an employee to leave a worksite because of a communicable disease — for example, when a quarantine order is issued. Employees who can work from home may be asked to do that in lieu of applying for contagious disease leave,” Wallace said.

Malone said this is a good option for employees who meet these circumstances.

“This is a type of leave that predates COVID but which has been rarely used,” Malone said. “If the local health director or his representative tells an employee that he or she must stay home, then the state pays for this leave.”

The school board leave policy also ends on March 31 unless the board votes for another extension.

The Town of Nashville also adopted a similar policy earlier this month. That policy extends until June 30.

Nashville Town Manager Randy Lansing told town council members that he recommended the adoption of the policy.

“Roughly one-quarter of the town employees have already used this leave before the end of December and can’t use it again,” he said. “I feel that the town budget will probably be able to handle it without any needed budget amendments.”

The Nashville Town Council unanimously approved the adoption of the policy.

Employees of these institutions should check with their human resource departments about the details of the policies.


Local
Nashville helps fund repairs to community building's roof

The Nashville Town Council voted last week to unanimously approve a request to provide extra funding to the Nashville Inter-Club Council to cover repairs to the roof of the Nashville Community Center as the center’s coffers have been depleted by COVID-19.

Jim Boehm, chairman of the Nashville Inter-Club Council that oversees the Nashville Community Center at 403 S. Alston St., presented the request to town officials in November. The club usually maintains the center’s building and grounds using revenue from renting the facility, though the town does support the group with $1,927 annually.

However, this year the situation is different, Boehm said in his request for an additional $2,500 from the town.

“The current roof had 25-year shingles. Recently, the roof started leaking after 13 years. The roof had no vents, causing the shingles to become brittle. Due to the COVID, we have not rented out the building. Thus, a loss of revenue occurred. The council agreed to install 30-year shingles with a vent across the top of the roof for $6,875. Your assistance in this matter is deeply appreciated,” Boehm stated in a letter to the town.

Nashville Town Council members supported the request, though some council members urged the Inter-Club to set up a rainy-day fund for future repairs.

“I know that the community building has served us for such a long time and the town has used it in the past for various things. I would like to see the town make this effort,” Council member Lynne Hobbs said.

The town council also unanimously approved a policy that simplifies the way that it handles the sale of property owned by the town.

In a request prepared by Town Manager Randy Lansing, staff members noted that there seemed to be a need for a change in the process.

“From time to time, the town receives inquiries from persons wanting to purchase town-owned real estate like the vacant residential lot the town owns at 215 North Lumber St.,” Lansing said in the request. “North Carolina General Statute 160A-269 sets forth how municipalities must sell real estate that is not part of an economic development project or a downtown revitalization project.”

Lansing said that some people find the statute intimidating.

“Nashville Finance Director Samantha Sanchez has taken the statute and drafted an upset bid process for the town,” Lansing said. “The policy lays out the real estate procedure in an easy-to-understand eight-step process.”

Lansing said that Sanchez and he recommended the town adopt the new policy.

“This is about as basic and elementary as we can make it but is thorough enough to let people know the process that is required by law,” Lansing said.


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