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Mayor calls for state investigation of Suddenlink

Rocky Mount’s city-wide elected official is firing off a letter to North Carolina’s chief legal official calling — just as Tarboro’s townwide elected official recently did — for a probe of the business practices of Suddenlink and parent company Altice USA.

Mayor Sandy Roberson, in text provided to the Telegram, also is asking state Attorney General Josh Stein for guidance amid numerous gripes by customers about poor service from the television and internet services giant.

Roberson outlined the following examples:

  • High pricing.
  • Inadequate picture quality.
  • Poor communications.
  • Incorrect billing.
  • Missed service calls.
  • Yet-to-be buried cables.
  • Slow internet speed.
  • Length of time customers have to wait on the phone to speak to a Suddenlink representative.
  • Faulty equipment.
  • A general lack of caring about their product or their customers.

“Many of us feel that this is due to the monopoly they hold in this area,” Roberson is telling Stein.

Roberson also is telling Stein that this has been an ongoing problem that has increased due to more people staying in their homes and working online amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Unlike all of us, Suddenlink has not evolved to meet the demand nor shown any compassion toward their customers,” Roberson says in the text.

In addition to calling for an investigation, Roberson is urging Stein to provide counsel and direction on how to best introduce competition into the marketplace “so that cable companies will need to offer the best services, best price and best customer service in their efforts to gain, and keep, customers.”

Roberson also is sending copies of the letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, state Sen. Lisa Barnes, state Sen. Toby Fitch, state Rep. James Gailliard and state Rep. Shelly Willingham.

Altice USA Communications Manager Ashwin Bhandari told the Telegram in an email that “Suddenlink is committed to delivering the best service and support to local residents and businesses in Rocky Mount and across North Carolina and we are engaged with the mayor and local officials to address any concerns.”

Roberson told the Telegram over the phone he understands the early days of cable television service involved so much infrastructure and expenses that it would be necessary to be able to at least allow a company to recoup costs, in turn resulting in a monopolistic approach.

“But I think those days have come and gone and maybe new technologies are out there that can provide us with some hope,” Roberson said.

Roberson, who was sworn in as mayor in December 2019, said representatives of CloudWyze, which presently is placing internet service in phases in Nash County, happened to reach out to him perhaps a year ago.

Roberson said since the situation with Suddenlink has come up, representatives of CloudWyze have reached out again.

Roberson said he is trying to connect them with Mayor Pro Tem Richard Joyner and maybe will try to make introductions to other council members.

Roberson said he does not know what CloudWyze’s proposal is or will be, but he emphasized his point is that there are others out there who perhaps can provide an alternative service to the satisfaction of Rocky Mount residents.

The Telegram reported on Jan. 1 that Tarboro town officials, via a letter by Mayor Joe Pitt, asked Stein to investigate the business practices of Suddenlink and Altice USA.

Pitt said in the letter that while service issue complaints have been ongoing for years in Tarboro, COVID-19 has exposed the scope of problems of both the infrastructure and service delivery of Suddenlink.

The Rocky Mount City Council also discussed concerns about Suddenlink during the council’s Jan. 11 regular meeting after Councilman Andre Knight had concerns about the company added to the council agenda.

The council agreed to come up with a plan of action in response to complaints about poor service by Suddenlink.

Roberson told the Telegram he has been waiting to see a sample resolution from the council and City Attorney Jep Rose but has yet to do that.

“And it’s just getting kind of long in the tooth in terms of time,” Roberson said of his belief in a need for sending a letter to Stein.

The Telegram on Jan. 14 reported that Suddenlink dispatched extra outside-the-company crews to Tarboro to fix service issues there, but that a representative of the company said apparently this was an infrastructure issue and would not be a quick fix.

The Telegram’s sister paper in Greenville, The Daily Reflector, also reported on Jan. 14 that the Greenville City Council unanimously voted to allow a new internet and television services company, MetroNet, to operate in the Pitt County seat.

The City of Rocky Mount and all but a small number of municipalities are forbidden by state law from directly getting into the internet service business.

That is because the majority of the General Assembly in 2011 passed a bill to keep municipalities from creating local internet services.

Telecommunications giants such as what was Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink pushed for the legislation, arguing such a law was needed to protect the free market for internet service.

The telecommunications giants argued local governments could pump revenues from electricity and other utility services into an internet infrastructure, creating an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

As a compromise, municipalities already providing internet service in their respective cities or towns — Wilson, Mooresville, Salisbury and Morganton — were grandfathered in, but one opposition lawmaker at the time called the then-proposed legislation “Time Warner’s bill.”

‘The Peanut Man’

George Hatfield stocks his stand Wednesday at East Grand and East Highland avenues. Hatfield, 79, said he is better known as ‘The Peanut Man’ but he also sells fruit, cashews and pork skins from about 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday, weather permitting, at the site.

Nash schools to proceed with reopening

Students in Nash County Public Schools will be returning to the classroom Monday as planned, but not all school board members are in favor of the idea.

The issue was discussed but not voted on Tuesday at a special called meeting. The matter was presented for information, but several school board members had plenty to say about the staff decision to continue with the plan approved by school board members at the beginning of January.

Superintendent Steve Ellis began the meeting by presenting information in support of returning students to the classroom on Monday under a Plan B blended format. For middle and high school students, this will be their first opportunity to attend class in person this year.

“The ABC Science Collaborative that we are a member of came out with some statistics that I thought were promising for kids to return to schools,” Ellis said.

According to a study of 11 North Carolina school districts that opened under Plan B at the beginning of the school year, more than 90,000 students and staff attended school in person for the first nine weeks of instruction. During that study, no instances of child-to-adult transmission were reported in the schools, Ellis said.

“What that tells us is that most of the time when students are in schools, we are doing what we need to be doing to keep those kids safe,” Ellis said.

The study also showed that the rate of transmission of COVID-19 in those school districts was less than it was in the surrounding communities, Ellis said.

Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services and Operations Leondus Farrow Jr. shared current positivity rates with school board members. According to the figures he presented, the positivity rate was 10.8 percent in Nash County on Dec. 18 before the Christmas break. On Jan. 8, about the time schools originally were set to open to in-person instruction, the rate had climbed to 13.2 percent. The rate was 13.1 percent as of Jan. 15, he said.

Edgecombe County has shown a similar pattern, though the numbers are not as high. On Dec. 18, 2020, the positivity rate in Edgecombe County was 9.1 percent, Farrow said. By Jan. 15, that number was 11 percent.

Ellis said the school district also is now measuring staffing metrics to help determine if schools are above 75 percent capacity. This information can help determine whether classrooms, halls or schools need to close to in-person instruction, Ellis said. As of now, D.S. Johnson Elementary School is the only school now in danger under that metric.

Sheila Wallace, executive director of human resources and federal programs for the school district, said that D.S. Johnson has had staffing issues because of COVID for quite a while but has managed to find ways to provide instruction through virtual instruction with the help of teaching assistants in the classrooms.

“Middle schools and high schools don’t have the luxury of having as many TAs because they are assigned to the elementary schools,” Wallace said.

School board member Evelyn Bulluck said she wanted the record to show that she is not in favor of reopening on Monday. She expressed concerns over students returning to the classroom with the current county metrics and asked if the staff had looked at what neighboring counties are doing about returning to the classroom.

“Some are remaining in Plan C and some are moving to Plan B,” Ellis said. “But when I look school to school and see that most of the schools are almost fully staffed, to me it seems that this is a time that we could try to move to Plan B. I think that gives parents options. If you don’t want to send your child back to school, you don’t have to send your child back to school.”

School board member LaShawnda Washington said she is concerned about the county metrics.

“The metrics already look bad,” she said. “We also need to think about our teachers. There are teachers who are not ready to (go) back into the building.”

Ellis said he feels the need to forge ahead because it is better for the education of students.

“We had these concerns before the elementary schools opened up and they seem to be working it out,” Ellis said. “A lot of this is just fear of the unknown. Until we try something, I don’t know how we get over that hurdle. When I look at the elementary school results, their failure rate is much lower than middle and high school, and I know that is because we have had direct instruction from teachers.”

School board member Reginald Silver also said that he feels the date to return to classrooms should be pushed back further for the safety of students.

School board Chairman Franklin Lamm said that most of the feedback he has had from families has favored returning to school.

“I think it is time to get the middle and high school students back,” Lamm said. “The parents have a clear option as to whether they want to return to school.”

School board member Dean Edwards said that as a parent of students in the district, he is heartily in favor of returning to school as planned.

“There are a lot of people who do want the students to return to school,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t believe how happy and delighted my kids were to return to school.”

Board Vice Chairman Bill Sharpe, who saved his comments for last, said he has deep reservations about students returning in person.

“I am not so much concerned for the kids as I am the parents and families they go back to,” he said. “I know we have the vaccine, but it is going slow. The way I would say it is that if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school, they need to keep them home and the school district will figure out how to teach them virtually. The way to fix this is to push the Department of Health and the state to vaccinate our teachers. It needs to be a higher priority that our teachers be vaccinated.”

Ellis said that teachers were supposed to be in the next group.

“The state then opened it up to people 65 or older, so that bumped us down,” Ellis said.

New COVID vaccination clinic opens in area

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the Twin Counties, UNC Health Care has begun offering COVID-19 vaccination appointments in the Rocky Mount area through Eastern North Carolina Medical Group.

Roughly 188 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported since Friday in Nash County, Nash County Health Director Bill Hill said Wednesday at a meeting of the Nash County COVID Response Team. The team did not meet on Monday because of the federal holiday.

As of Wednesday, Nash County had a cumulative total of 7,192 cases of COVID-19. County officials also reported four more deaths this week, though no details were provided. The COVID death toll in Nash County now is 134.

Hill said he is more worried about the number of hospitalizations of COVID patients at Nash UNC Health Care. As of Wednesday, there were 52 COVID patients in that facility, he said.

“The uptick in cases of COVID patients in the Intensive Care Unit is especially concerning,” Hill said. “As of Wednesday, eight of the 52 patients were in ICU and four of those were on ventilators.”

Though the Edgecombe County Health Department no longer is reporting any totals, the state Department of Health and Human Services indicates that 108 new cases of COVID have been reported in that county since Friday. The cumulative total of COVID cases in Edgecombe County now is 3,767.

In response to the growing number of cases, UNC Health Care is expanding its vaccination efforts. The most recently revised state DHHS guidelines have redefined the eligibility criteria to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to incorporate a larger percentage of the state’s population, the organization said in a press release issued Wednesday through Nash UNC Health Care.

Currently, health care workers with in-person patient contact; long-term care staff and residents of skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and continuing care retirement communities; and anyone 65 years or older, regardless of health status or living situation, are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available.

Eligible residents can schedule a COVID-19 vaccination by visiting www.YourShot.org and clicking on the “Get Vaccinated” link. Anyone experiencing issues scheduling online can call 984-215-5485 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday.

Hospital officials advise interested and eligible residents to schedule appointments to receive the vaccine as soon as possible as the supply is very limited and walk-ins are not accepted. The vaccine is free to everyone but people with insurance are asked to bring their insurance cards. A photo ID is not required, the statement said.

The only vaccination clinic open through UNC Health Care in the Rocky Mount area at this time is the Eastern North Carolina Medical Group on Noell Lane.

“Please be aware that appointments on the website show availability at clinics across the UNC Health system throughout North Carolina. Eligible residents can make an appointment at any clinic location but should pay special attention to the location they choose as some may not be close to where they live,” the statement said.

The hospital is not vaccinating the public at this time. The hospital continues to vaccinate health care workers and is providing resources and assistance to the clinic at Eastern North Carolina Medical Group, the statement said.

Hill said the county health department is continuing its vaccination efforts on a limited scale until more supplies become available.

Woman dies after being injured in traffic wreck

A 90-year-old local woman lost her life recently as a result of the vehicle she was riding in being involved in a wreck with a commercial vehicle in the Duke Circle area of the city, authorities said and records show.

Rosa Cypher died on Jan. 11, roughly two days after the collision, which occurred at the intersection of West Thomas and North Lee streets, police Cpl. Ricky Jackson told the Telegram.

Officers responded at 9:50 a.m. on Jan. 9.

The Telegram obtained a copy of the wreck report after backtracking via the local Police to Citizen bulletin-board-like online link of arrests and incidents and seeing there was a posting about a case of a death by motor vehicle.

According to the wreck report, Cypher was in a 2020 Kia sport utility vehicle registered to and being driven by Rosemarie Mitchell, also of Rocky Mount.

A traffic signal is at West Thomas and North Lee.

Mitchell was making a left from North Lee onto West Thomas, the report said.

That is when a 2020 Freightliner truck being driven by Derrick Parker, also of Rocky Mount, ran a red light, the report said.

The SUV was struck by the truck and went about 184 feet, striking a curb and going into the front yard of a residence along West Thomas before striking a tree, the report said.

The truck went about 309 feet on West Thomas, the report said.

Parker told officers the truck had on-board cameras, but they were not online at the time of the collision, the report said.

The truck had been going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone, the report said.

The report said neither alcohol consumption nor drug use was suspected as a cause of the wreck.

Cypher and Mitchell, who was born in 1947, both were taken to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, the report said.

According to the report, the SUV sustained about $10,000 worth of damage and the truck, which is registered to Barnes Transportation Services of Wilson, sustained about $2,500 worth of damage.

Parker, who was born in 1976 and who listed an address in the 1700 block of Cox Avenue, was charged with failing to stop or steady for a red light, the report said.

Parker is due on May 5 in Nash County District Court, statewide online judicial system records said.

Jackson told the Telegram an investigation is continuing.

By coincidence, the wreck occurred more than 12 hours before a fatal hit-and-run on Hunter Hill Road in the northwestern part of the city.

Domoneq Canady, 30, of Rocky Mount, turned himself in at the Nash County Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 14 and he was released on bond after police charged him with feloniously committing hit-and-run resulting in the death of Julia Uduma, 46.