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Pinetops removed from state financially distressed list

The state Local Government Commission has removed Pinetops from a list of government entities designated as financially distressed.

Pinetops had a total assessment criteria score of 12. It was placed on the list because its score exceeded nine for entities providing both drinking water and wastewater services.

Town officials began working on the town’s standing with the state shortly after being notified of its placement on the list — and brought the effort to fruition when the town board on June 22 adopted its fiscal year 2021-22 budget.

The budget maintained the town’s 46-cents-per-$100 valuation property tax rate, but it put into play some key steps that led the LGC to take action at its August meeting.

“Pinetops officials demonstrated a willingness to find out what’s right, get it right and keep it right, and were able to work their way off of the Unit Assistance List in short order,” said State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who chairs the Local Government Commission.

To get off the list, town leaders had to develop both short- and long-term plans for infrastructure repair, maintenance and 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.

Pinetops had been flagged for moderate-risk concerns over internal bookkeeping controls and financial issues related to its water and sewer fund and low-risk concerns over its general fund.

“I know when you first hear the words LGC it may automatically portray negative connotations, but the LGC staff has been a big help to me throughout my 30-plus years in local government,” town Finance Officer Tammy Keesler said. “No matter how much experience one possesses, there is always something more to learn — and the LGC is more than willing to provide multiple options to the financial challenges facing small towns today.”

She said having access to input from the LGC throughout the process is a benefit to communities.

“I personally consider the LGC as an asset to finance officers because there are times you need a third party to reaffirm that suggestions made — though not always favorable — are made with the best interest of the town as a whole in mind,” she said.

Keesler said the town increased its tax rate one-tenth of a percent to generate revenue, contracted with Edgecombe County to help improve tax collections, increased water and sewer rates by 25 percent with more gradual rate increases going forward and deterred inter-fund transfers to the General Fund.

Pinetops Mayor Brenda Harrell said LGC’s commitment to working with the town helped officials reach their goal while improving the quality of service to its citizens.

CSX intermodal facility to open in October

The details of the opening of the future CSX intermodal facility north of the city are taking shape, the state Transportation Department said.

Planning is underway for a ribbon cutting in mid-October, Transportation Department Marketing and Communications Project Manager Katie Trout told the Telegram in a brief email.

Trout told the newspaper she would be happy to share more details, including the logistics and the list of speakers, as the ceremonial opening date approaches.

Gov. Roy Cooper; U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District; and scores of other VIPs and residents gathered in April 2019 on the lawn of the N.C. Wesleyan campus for a dirt-turning ceremony signaling the start of construction of the future CSX facility.

The future facility is just on the Edgecombe County side of the Nash County-Edgecombe County line.

The Telegram in January 2020 reported the project was scheduled to be ready by the end of that year.

Carolinas Gateway Partnership Vice President Oppie Jordan told the Telegram in July that workers from Ireland were delayed in coming to install the cranes at the site of the future intermodal facility due to safety restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The future CSX facility, which is also called the Carolina Connector, will be a place for freight trains to arrive, with the freight to be off-loaded onto other trains or trucks for distribution.

More than $36K spent on Black business initiative

The City of Rocky Mount paid more than $36,600 in bills submitted by the Black Business Matters Initiative, a spreadsheet of records the Telegram received from the municipality said.

The majority of the amount, $19,028, was paid to Black Business Matters for consultant fees and video production, the spreadsheet said.

The second-highest amount, $11,685, was paid to the Linck Harris Law Group for legal and organizational work, the spreadsheet said.

As for the rest of the bills, $3,750 was paid to Black Business Matters for urban planning, $1,168 was paid to Black Business Matters for a meet and greet in autumn 2020 and $1,000 was paid to Black Business Matters for the design of a website.

A website listed under the name Rocky Mount Renaissance stated that Rocky Mount Renaissance serves as the architect and engineer behind the Black Business Matters Initiative.

The website stated the purpose of the Black Business Matters Initiative is to promote sustainable and generational economic empowerment that strengthens and expands equity ownership in the Black community.

The website listed Rocky Mount Renaissance’s team as comprised of Dr. Lisa Nelson, JonNisha Evans, Celeste Beatty, Kevin Harris and Calvin Ballance.

Nelson is a native New Yorker, a graduate of Yale University School of Medicine and a since-retired surgeon who had been with Boice-Willis Clinic.

Evans is a graduate of N.C. State University and president and CEO of Lennox and Grae Construction in Durham.

Beatty is a graduate of Shaw University and she established Harlem Brewing in New York City. Beatty also is the first Black woman brewer to launch a commercially distributed beer.

Harris is the city’s downtown development manager. Harris also independently does consulting and contract work to provide strategy and hands-on assistance for public agencies and nonprofit community economic development organizations.

Ballance is the chief business development officer of the Opportunities Industrialization Center. The OIC seeks to help provide residents with employment training and health care.

City Councilman Reuben Blackwell is CEO of the OIC and City Councilman Andre Knight is chairman of the OIC’s board.

The City Council during a June 22, 2020, council regular meeting approved funding and technical support to help pinpoint having a “Black Business Matters Zone” in the heart of Rocky Mount.

Knight, who made the motion for the vote, requested anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to subsidize the planning and pre-development costs to secure corporate investment in this particular area.

Nelson told the council she was representing a group of concerned citizens interested in economic development for all of Rocky Mount.

Nelson told the council she and her group believed such a zone could provide funding to businesses and real estate development that, in turn, would provide commercial opportunities and bring in more economic power to afford housing the municipality wants to construct downtown.

“If we revitalize downtown, everybody wins,” she told the council.

Knight said he viewed this as another opportunity “to right a wrong, as far as economic justice,” in that major companies have contributed money in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement and empowering African Americans in economic development.

Knight made clear he would like the purposes of the zone to include expanding the historically African American Douglas Block area of downtown, helping expand businesses already downtown and securing new businesses downtown.

Activist Cooper Blackwell, who is a representative of the youth-led Rocky Mount Black Action Committee and a son of Reuben Blackwell, told the council the committee would like to offer its services to the council in assisting with the improvement of racial equity within the city.

The Telegram had since at least as far back as March 11 been citing state open records law in requesting documented information in connection with the City of Rocky Mount appropriating funds for the Black Business Matters Initiative.

City Communications, Marketing and Public Relations Director Jessie Nunery sent the spreadsheet on Aug. 11.

Virus cases still surging as testing lags in area

The number of confirmed COVID cases rose by nearly 550 over the past week in the Twin Counties, but the actual number is probably much higher because of limited testing facilities in the area.

A survey of testing sites over the Labor Day weekend indicated that there was almost no way to be tested without an expensive trip to the emergency room. Local pharmacies that offer testing, including Walgreens and CVS, did not have any testing slots available and as of Tuesday, that was still true locally.

These sites usually limit the number of COVID tests administered per day and they are being overwhelmed by the current surge in cases.

Fastmed Urgent Care offers testing and was open over the holiday weekend. However, a staff member there said that due to the large number of positive cases, they are only testing by appointment, which can be delayed by several days.

Most local residents who need to be tested are having to travel to other counties or rely on at-home tests that can be purchased at local pharmacies.

Despite the lack of testing facilities over the weekend, the number of new cases of COVID reported in Nash County rose slightly last week from 325 cases reported on Aug. 31 to 331 cases reported on Tuesday. These numbers reflect only tests that have been conducted through reportable methods and do not reflect home tests or tests taken in other counties.

“We are still seeing a surge in the delta strain of the virus in our area,” Nash County Health Director Bill Hill said Tuesday.

The current cumulative number of cases of COVID reported in Nash County so far is 13,011.

Edgecombe County also is experiencing a large surge in cases as 213 new cases were added over the past week to the cumulative total on the state Department of Health and Human Services website. That cumulative total is now 6,701.

Hill said that the Nash County numbers reflect a wide range of ages. Of the 331 cases reported this week, two cases were seen in infants under the age of 1, 13 cases were reported in the 1 to 4 age group, 32 were reported in the 5 to 9 age group, 33 were reported among 10- to 14-year-old residents and 30 cases were reported among teens aged 15 to 19.

Another 54 cases were reported in Nash County residents in their 20s, 48 were reported among 30-somethings, 47 were reported among 40-somethings and 30 cases were reported in the 50 to 59 age group. Another 42 cases were reported in the largest group that includes residents who are 60 years of age and older.

Hospitalizations for COVID also remain high. A spokesperson for Nash UNC Health Care said that the number of COVID-related hospitalizations reached 40 over the weekend. However, by Tuesday that number had dropped to 32.

Hill said Tuesday that three of those 32 patients are under intensive care and two of them are on ventilators. Hill also said the number of fully vaccinated patients who were hospitalized has grown as the delta strain surges.

“Five of the patients are fully vaccinated, which we have not seen in the past,” he said. “Hopefully, they will not get so severely ill since they have some vaccination protection. But the rest of that number were not vaccinated at all.”

The number of Nash County residents who have lost their lives to COVID rose to 207 over the past week, Hill said. The last reported death toll in Edgecombe County is 118.

Schools are also seeing an increase in cases as students return to class. As of Friday, Nash County Public Schools reported that 68 new student cases and seven new staff cases of COVID have been reported. The number of students and staff under quarantine for possible exposure has also escalated. As of Friday, 13 staff members and 218 students were under quarantine in addition to the number of confirmed COVID cases.

In Edgecombe County Public Schools, 32 new student cases and four new staff cases were reported over the past week ending Friday.

Hill said that more vaccinations are needed to help stem the rising tide of COVID cases.

“We are still having vaccination clinics and still trying to persuade more people to get vaccinated,” Hill said. “I think there is irrefutable evidence that these vaccines are safe and effective.”

Anyone in Nash County who wishes to be vaccinated can call the Nash County Health Department at 252-462-2079 to schedule a free vaccination.

To schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment through the Edgecombe County Health Department, call the Edgecombe County COVID-19 Hotline at 252-563-4600.

Vaccinations are also available through Nash UNC Health Care. Call 252-962-8624 or go to YourShot.org to schedule an appointment or find more information about walk-in clinics.

Anyone wishing to learn more about COVID testing resources in the area should go to https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/about-covid-19/testing/find-my-testing-place/test-site-finder.

Local meetings to focus on redistricting process

Local residents will have the opportunity to learn more about the redistricting process and share their thoughts about future redistricting in the Twin Counties at a pair of meetings that will be held over the next two weeks in the area.

Based on recently released census data, district lines are expected to be redrawn from the ward level in local municipalities to state legislative and congressional districts.

“Quite simply, how lawmakers draw the maps will determine who gets elected to represent us in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., which impacts the direction of Rocky Mount and our state for the next 10 years,” Common Cause NC Redistricting Organizer Tyler Daye said in a news release.

Common Cause NC, which bills itself as a “nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy,” is hosting a virtual workshop on the topic this week and is inviting local residents to participate in the conversation. The workshop, which will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, will focus on redistricting issues affecting the Rocky Mount area.

Residents can attend the meeting in person at Greater Joy Baptist Church at 820 Nashville Road in Rocky Mount or they may attend virtually by registering in advance at tinyurl.com/dtlrockymount.

“We’ll talk about what redistricting is, how lawmakers shouldn’t get to draw their own districts and why the community you live in shouldn’t be sliced and diced for partisan advantage,” Daye said in the news release. “When lawmakers gerrymander legislative and congressional maps, they eliminate competition — leaving we the people with no choice or voice on Election Day. Come learn what you can do to help push back.”

State leaders also are soliciting input on the new district maps at a series of public hearings that will be held in the coming weeks across the state.

The legislative committees charged with drawing North Carolina’s new congressional and legislative district maps will take public comment during the next month at 13 public hearings.

“By the conclusion of the process, a public hearing will have occurred in each of the state’s current congressional districts,” according to a news release from state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, co-chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Nash Community College will be hosting one of the public hearings at 5 p.m. on Sept. 15 in the college’s Brown Auditorium.

According to the news release, each public hearing will use the same rules for prospective speakers.

“Members of the public may sign up to speak on-site at each hearing beginning one hour prior to start time. Members of the public may also sign up online to speak. The online sign-up portal will close four hours prior to start time,” the news release said.

The online signup portal can be accessed on the left side of the legislative website homepage at www.ncleg.gov.

The public also can share their opinions on redistricting matters in person at the hearings, according to the release. Comments can also be submitted online on the state legislature’s website at https://www.ncleg.gov/requestforcomments/38.

Candidates are scheduled to start filing for congressional and legislative elections on Dec. 6. Comments from an earlier joint redistricting committee meeting suggested that lawmakers needed to finish the new maps at least three weeks before that date. The State Board of Elections needs the time to prepare for the candidate filing period.

Information from the Carolina Journal is included in this report.