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Jack Metzger pitches in relief in game two of Sunday’s doubleheader between Tarboro and Catawba Valley. The River Bandits won both games, 1-0 and 5-2.

State audit reports improper expenses by former school superintendent

State Auditor Beth Wood released an audit report Tuesday about improper financial dealings by Shelton Jefferies, a former superintendent of Nash County Public Schools.

“The results of our investigation found that the former superintendent of Nash County Public Schools violated his contract and multiple policies and procedures related to his procurement card and use of a school system vehicle. These violations resulted in $45,690 in unallowed and questionable expenses,” Wood said in her summary of the report.

Jefferies resigned in August 2019 after an investigative report about his travel expenses was published by the Rocky Mount Telegram in April of that year. It now appears that an internal investigation of the issue began at the school board level at about the same time, which uncovered some of these improper dealings.

However, Wood said even more issues were revealed as the Office of the State Auditor conducted its own investigation.

After an investigation that took several weeks and included several requests to the school district about Jefferies’ travel and other expenses, the Telegram reported on April 28, 2019, that Jefferies traveled more than 29,000 miles in a fleet vehicle belonging to Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

That was in comparison to 1,607 miles traveled in a fleet vehicle shared by the entire cabinet staff and 2,671 miles traveled in a fleet vehicle shared by the entire technology staff for the same year.

This also was in comparison with the 7,816 miles traveled by Jefferies in the fleet vehicle for the entire 2016-17 school year, indicating a change in pattern. After that, Jefferies’ mileage on the vehicle more than tripled each year.

In addition, Jefferies was paid a $600-a-month travel allowance during his time in office, the Telegram reported.

Jefferies’ travel miles escalated at roughly the same time he purchased a family home in Huntersville near Charlotte while he was serving as superintendent of what was then Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools. That information was published by the Telegram earlier in 2019 when Telegram reporters investigated how many local leaders were living in residences outside the Twin Counties.

In the investigative article written in April, the Telegram noted that driving the fleet vehicle to Huntersville each week could account for the extra 18,000 miles each year. However, no records provided by the school district were able to corroborate this travel pattern.

But the audit report released Tuesday indicates that the Office of the State Auditor was able to provide that link.

“The superintendent used his assigned school system vehicle for personal use. Specifically, the superintendent made 99 fuel purchases totaling $3,015 in the Charlotte metropolitan area, including purchases in Huntersville, North Carolina, which is the location of his personal residence. He submitted these fuel purchases as workshops or conference travel expenses,” the audit report states.

Though school district policies presented by the Telegram clearly stated that the use of the vehicle was to be only for school-related travel and was primarily for use within the county, Jefferies violated this usage, blaming the school district for its lack of oversight.

“The superintendent stated that the school system ‘did not track (vehicle) usage. (The school system) had no restrictions on in-state travel per the policy and administrative guidelines.’ He admitted to driving the school system vehicle to the Charlotte area to visit his children. However, the school system’s policy required vehicles to be operated on official school system business only,” Wood said in her report.

The audit report specifically states that Jefferies improperly used his procurement card to the tune of $22,045, violated the school system’s travel policy at a cost of $19,362 and used the school system’s vehicle for personal use at a cost of $3,015. He also made fuel purchases and rented a vehicle despite receiving a travel allowance, the report said. That added another $1,268 to the tally.

In the state audit report, Wood recommended that the school board seek recompense from Jefferies for the $45,690 in unallowed and questionable expenses.

“The board should seek reimbursement from the former superintendent for expenses that lacked adequate documentation or were unallowed by his contract, policies and procedures,” Wood said in the report.

In a letter released by Tharrington Smith, the law firm that represents the school board, the attorney of record stated that the school board intends to do just that.

“The board has instructed our firm to seek reimbursement from Dr. Jefferies for the $45,690 in improper expenditures identified by the state auditor (less any amounts Dr. Jefferies already reimbursed to the board). If the board does not receive payment of this amount within 60 days following the date of our letter, it will report the matter to the district attorney for review,” Attorney Lindsay Vance Smith said in the letter dated June 10.

Nash County Public Schools released a statement Tuesday following the publication of the audit report.

“The Nash Board of Education appreciates the Office of the State Auditor’s diligence in supporting the board’s work and ensuring that the board is a good steward of the funds with which it has been entrusted. To that end, the board has cooperated fully with the Office of the State Auditor throughout this investigation, takes very seriously all findings included in the report and is prepared to fully implement recommendations made by the State Auditor, including seeking reimbursement of any improper expenditures that occurred,” the statement said.

The audit reports did not lay the blame for the issue solely at Jefferies’ feet. In a future article, the Telegram will explore more details that came to light as a result of the state investigation.

Art center owner chides city officials

The part-owner of the Bel Air Art Center on Monday addressed the City Council about what she sees as a need for both more municipal funding for downtown and the local government to listen to downtown businesses and property owners.

“Putting up flags that have cheerleading chants on them is simply not going to cut it anymore,” Jessica Hicks said.

Hicks also stated that she believes there is no reason there should not be a healthy amount of growth and development downtown.

“It seems that Rocky Mount is its own worst enemy,” she said.

“This mentality starts at the top,” Hicks said. “If you accepted your positions or have appointed positions to others to prevent things from happening rather than to make things happen, you were doing things for the wrong reasons.”

Hicks did not state the names of who she was referring to, but she emphasized she believes a city, let alone that city’s downtown, cannot grow and strategically develop this way.

The Bel Air is along South Church Street in what was the Bulluck family’s Chevrolet dealership before the business in 1968 moved to along the North Wesleyan Boulevard corridor.

In 2009, since-deceased Ron Vetere and his wife, Hillary, established the Bel Air Artisans Center, where artists could work and display their works.

Jessica Hicks and her husband, Michael, finalized a deal in 2017 to take over the Bel Air Artisans Center and changed the name to Bel Air Art Center, which has a renovated setting providing space for artists.

Jessica Hicks on Monday told the City Council that the majority of those supporting the Bel Air are tourists or guests from outside Rocky Mount.

“Though the lack of local and city support has been disappointing, we have come to accept this and are grateful for the support we do receive,” Hicks said. “Multiple times I have overheard or experienced comments from tourists pertaining to the lack of development downtown. I love downtown Rocky Mount and it hurts to hear these things, but they are true.”

Hicks said that when she and her husband moved here in 2015, she saw the potential everyone speaks of.

“However, the past four years of being downtown and trying to work with the city have taught me firsthand why downtown is how it is,” Hicks said.

She noted that in having reviewed the downtown section of the city’s website, she has yet to see mention of the Bel Air, her Willow Tree Yoga Studio and other businesses downtown.

She suggested adding a tab to the website so people can connect to the tourism websites for Nash County and Edgecombe County.

She also said another idea would be for the city to invest in and maintain maps of downtown with “You are here” arrows showing all the businesses downtown and where they are located.

Kevin McLaughlin, who established the Larema Coffee House along South Washington Street at the Five Points intersection, on Monday told the City Council what primarily attracted him to Rocky Mount is the beautiful historic downtown.

McLaughlin also spoke of him and fellow downtown business owners banding together and pooling resources in response to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

McLaughlin used the speaker’s podium to reach out and ask for the city to partner with downtown business owners and operators in efforts to have visitors experience the array of what is going on downtown.

McLaughlin also spoke of being excited that the first day of an upcoming two-day 2021 local Juneteenth Community Empowerment Festival will be outside his business.

“However, I had to find out about that through the grapevine,” he said. “I don’t know how many hundreds of people we are expecting on Friday, but nobody from the city has let me know to this day.”

A line of people on Monday spoke in support of more funding for downtown redevelopment as part of a public hearing of the City Council for the proposed fiscal year 2021-22 municipal operating budget.

Prior to the public comments about the proposed municipal operating budget, the council, as always during council regular meetings, has a public input hearing generally from residents.

During the general public input period on Monday, Dr. Kim E. Koo told the council she would like more inclusion of those in the community in the virtual Town Hall series the municipal administration has put in motion.

Koo as an example cited the May 25 online Town Hall, which was about downtown redevelopment.

The panel was comprised of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, Downtown Development Manager Kevin Harris, Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Farris, Ben Braddock of the Station Square business and professional complex and Dr. Lisa Nelson-Robinson of Rocky Mount Renaissance.

Koo on Monday noted the promotional flyer for that May 25 online Town Hall having a vague “You” in the photo space representing Rocky Mount residents, which never really materialized as no one spoke for the community.

Koo asked whether at least some of those from the neighborhoods in the downtown areas should have been on the panel.

Koo also made clear she had a problem with what she considered to have been “a top-down approach” by those who organized the online Town Hall about downtown redevelopment.

“Do we need a title, lots of money or positions of power to be part of the conversation?” Koo asked.

Downtown developers seek more public partnerships

John Williams resorted to a bit of humor while he was one of a list of speakers calling for the City of Rocky Mount to inject more municipal funding into redeveloping downtown.

During Monday’s City Council regular meeting, Williams, who has a farm stand, told of having been a single father, of knowing a lot about babies and of knowing babies need support.

“And what I’m seeing with the downtown Rocky Mount area is we’re expecting a pretty baby to be born,” Williams said. “A lot of men and women are interacting right now together to make this baby be born — and when that baby is born, it needs some funding.”

Williams drew laughter after he added, “Support the baby: Pay your child support.”

A line of people on Monday used the speaker’s podium during the general public input period and during the public hearing for the proposed municipal operating budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 in calling for more funding to redevelop the heart of Rocky Mount.

Developer Troy Davis emphasized his belief in the importance of public-private partnerships, how one can help the other and the other way around and in turn help generate revenue streams locally.

“I’m spending about $2 million on Main Street right now and have another $3 million or $4 million allocated for the old Carleton House hotel,” he said. “I think that we need to incentivize our downtown and help that grow so that we can help the remainder of the city grow.”

Davis is transforming three side-by-side buildings in the 100 block of Southeast Main Street into the future Davis Lofts residential and commercial development.

Davis also acquired the former longtime Carleton House downtown motor lodge and restaurant at North Church and West Thomas streets with the intention to revitalize that location.

Activist and businessman Charles Roberson told the council that he and others are asking for a minimum of $3 million to be allocated for a downtown redevelopment for the fiscal year 2021-22 and that he believes a thriving downtown would generate funds that can be distributed to all of Rocky Mount’s seven wards.

“Let me be very clear with your constituents,” Roberson said. “Downtown can help feed this whole city. When downtown wins, Rocky Mount wins.”

Roberson said he is happy to be in the company of champions who have breathed life into downtown such as visionaries, entrepreneurs and foot soldiers who have boots on the ground. Still, he said downtown is suffering from years of deferred maintenance resulting in numerous dilapidated buildings and from decades of disinvestment resulting in a scarce population.

Roberson said there needs to be gap funding to ignite projects waiting to occur downtown and inspire other developers to come to Rocky Mount to help rebuild downtown.

Gap funding in essence is an interim loan to temporarily provide financing for a person until he or she can secure a more permanent solution.

“If downtown is the heart of this city, we have to give it the resources it needs to make it well,” Roberson said. “Then our heart can pump blood into the rest of the communities to make the whole body healthier.”

Developer Michael Hurt on Monday told the council that Davis and Roberson asked him to come speak and that he has a location in the 200 block of Southeast Main Street under contract.

“Basically, what I see is an opportunity to take a building that is distressed and turn it into something that has a positive contribution to the community,” Hurt said.

Hurt also said he purchased a 16,000-square-foot historic building in Halifax for $8,000 and converted the location into a combination residential and commercial structure with an estimated value of about $1.6 million.

Hurt emphasized that what he is interested in doing is public-private development partnerships.

While at the speaker’s podium, Hurt also said that he has rental properties in other areas of Rocky Mount and that he would like to see a stronger police presence in these communities.

“We have a lot of children that do their homework on the floor because their parents are concerned about what’s going on,” he said. “We’ve got grandparents that won’t call the police because they don’t show up. And they’re scared about the backlash from the people that are in some of these communities.”

City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney on Monday told the audience and online viewers in response to the call for more funding for redeveloping downtown that “certainly we feel your pain” and that she has taken a number of notes about other things the municipality can and will do.

As for adding more funding for the fiscal year 2021-22 for downtown redevelopment, Small-Toney said, “If I have to include this, then that means something else is going to be cut because I can’t stretch the revenues too much more than what we have thus far.”

At the same time, she made clear to those advocating more for redeveloping downtown that they have her full support.

“We understand the need — and we’ll do all that we can to assist,” she said.

Virus cases continue to decline in Twin Counties

The COVID outlook in the Twin Counties continues to improve with Nash County posting roughly half of the new number of cases as last week and Edgecombe County dropping another tier on the most recent county alert report.

Nash County Health Director Bill Hill shared his good news Tuesday at a now-weekly meeting of the Nash County COVID Response Team.

“Numbers are still improving,” Hill said. “I have some good metrics to report.”

Hill reported just 14 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Nash County residents over the past week compared to 27 new cases reported last week.

“This is the lowest total I remember reporting for a very long time,” Hill said.

The new cases bring the total cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in Nash County to 11,371.

COVID cases continue to skew to younger people, who are less likely to be vaccinated. Of the 14 new cases reported, three were among residents between the ages of 10 and 19 and another three were in the 20-29 age bracket.

Just two cases were reported in each of the age groups of 30 somethings, 40 somethings, 50 somethings and residents 60 years of age or older. No cases were reported in children under the age of 10, Hill said.

COVID-related hospitalizations are remaining fairly steady, Hill said.

“Last week when we looked at total hospitalizations, I reported six. This week we have eight COVID patients at Nash UNC Health Care as of this morning,” Hill said Tuesday. “But none are in critical care this week, while one was in critical care last week.”

Hill did have some bad news to report.

“We did unfortunately add another death last week, which takes us to 193 total deaths attributed to coronavirus,” he said.

Hill said the situation is improving but the need for vaccinations is still strong.

“We are seeing some good continuing trends downward and that is consistent with what we are seeing across the state and across the nation. I hope we can continue to get these vaccinations done and continue to get back to some pre-pandemic normalcy,” Hill said.

Roughly 43 percent of Nash County residents have had at least dose of the vaccine and roughly 39 percent of county residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Nash County is performing somewhat better than Edgecombe County as far as new cases are concerned. According to the state DHHS website, 34 cases of COVID were reported for every 100,000 residents over the past 14 days in Nash while 68 new cases have been reported among Edgecombe County residents during the same time period.

The cumulative total number of confirmed cases of COVID in Edgecombe County is 5,691. As of last report, 118 Edgecombe County residents have lost their lives to COVID.

The state also reports that roughly 35 percent of Edgecombe County residents have been at least partially vaccinated while 31 percent have been fully vaccinated.

However, Edgecombe County did move to a better tier level on the last County Alert report issued Thursday by the state DHHS. As of that report, Edgecombe moved from the yellow tier, indicating a significant impact, to the light yellow tier, indicating a slight impact.

The positivity rate over the past 14 days in Edgecombe County is 3.9 percent, according to that report.

Nash County remains in the light yellow tier with a 2.6 percent positivity rate.

Pinetops board to consider $4.8M budget

A $4,821,486 budget will be considered when the Pinetops Board of Commissioners meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget, which is just $151,622 more than the town’s current budget.

While the proposed budget maintains the current tax rate of 46 cents per $100 valuation and includes a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise, it also includes a 25 percent increase in water and sewer rates.

In the budget message, the town advised residents that water and sewer rates could see what it termed “smaller increases at specified times” to offset expenses associated with ongoing infrastructure issues.

According to the town’s budget message, while the budget does not contain any increase in electric rates, that may have to be revisited in the future, as electric rates have remained unchanged since a 2015 increase.

The message also advises that the town will continue its recycling and trash collection at a rate of $21 per month. The town will continue collecting recyclables on a twice-weekly basis after switching from a weekly collection in May 2021.

Additionally, the town will continue its tax collection contract with Edgecombe County to help ensure the town remains aggressive in its collection efforts. That contract started with the 2020 tax season.

The budget message noted that Pinetops was recently classified as a distressed unit, which means it needs to look at ways to develop both short- and long-term plans for infrastructure repair, maintenance and management.

Additionally, the town will need to implement long-term financial management to ensure the public water system and wastewater system will generate enough revenue to adequately fund management, operations, personnel and appropriate levels of maintenance.

The town also disclosed in the budget message that it intends to hire an additional full-time police officer during the upcoming fiscal year, covering the salary and benefits with revenue from taxes, garbage and recycling fees and state-shared disbursements.

Town insurance will continue to be through Blue Cross Blue Shield and will carry a 21 percent rate increase.

Also, the town will contribute an additional 1 percent to the general employee 401(K) plan, taking the total contribution to 3.5 percent. Police department employees will receive 5 percent per state law.