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City to explore selling water-sewer system

City Council voted Monday to have the city explore selling Elizabeth City’s water and sewer system to a for-profit company.

Council’s 7-1 vote tabled a motion to replace the city’s approximately 8,000 water meters at a cost of approximately $5 million. In its vote, council also asked City Manager Rich Olson to provide the “pros and cons” of selling the city’s sewer and water system to a third party.

The motion to table installation of the new water meters was the fourth vote at Monday’s council meeting on replacing both the water meters and the city’s 13,500 residential and commercial electric meters.

Council first split 4-4 on approving both projects, with Councilors Billy Caudle, Jeannie Young, Chris Ruffieux and Kem Spence voting in favor and Councilors Johnnie Walton, Michael Brooks, Gabriel Adkins and Darius Horton voting against the motion.

Mayor Bettie J. Parker broke the tie by voting against moving forward on both projects, citing some councilors’ desire to seek more information about possibly selling the water and sewer system.

Ruffieux then requested that the two projects be separated and voted on separately.

However, council again split 4-4 on rescinding the vote to deny the two projects so they could be voted on separately.

Parker broke the tie by voting in favor of the motion, joining Caudle, Young, Ruffieux and Spence.

Council then voted unanimously to approve the electric meter project before voting 7-1 to table a decision on the water meter project. Young cast the lone “no” vote against tabling the issue.

The idea of possibly selling the water and sewer system was raised by former Elizabeth City Public Utilities Director Joe Pearce. Pearce, who served one year as public utilities director from April 2017 to March 2018, is now the North Carolina director of operations for AQUA American, a publicly traded company that provides private water and wastewater services. He urged council to explore selling the city’s water and sewer system to a private entity.

Pearce told council that because Elizabeth City needs significant infrastructure improvements to its water and sewer system, the city should consider selling the system to an “investor-owned utility.” He believes the city’s system is valued at around $68 million.

“It does not appear that Elizabeth City has determined a means to fund this work,” Pearce said. “To my knowledge a long-term capital improvement plan exists but it has not been funded. The sale of the water and sewer to an investor-utility will assure the prudent use of ratepayer funds and allow the city to use the proceeds for other necessary projects.’’

Several council members said they were not aware that selling the water and sewer system was an option and asked for more information on the matter.

“I would like the opportunity of being able to hear about going the route with AQUA, or any other company for that matter,” Horton said. “This has my mind thinking about the possibilities of going that route. I want to hear, ‘Hey, these are all your options from A to Z.’ I don’t want to put a wrench in this but I would have liked to have known that this was an option.”

Olson said that if the water and sewer system is sold to a third party then the city would have no control over how much citizens are charged for water and sewer. He also noted that private ownership of the system wouldn’t guarantee “they are going to fix the water lines any quicker.”

Olson said the city’s recent audit shows that the water and sewer system’s current appreciated value is $48 million.

“In my professional opinion, it is not in the city’s best interest,” Olson said, referring to Pearce’s recommendation to sell the system. “You (currently) control the rates. Usually with an outside company, they control the rates. That third party is going to need anywhere from 10 to 15 percent return on the investment. That usually ensures that rates do go up somewhat so they get the return on investment.”

Consumers always end up paying the difference, he said.

“When you do the drawn down for what they need to make the investment worthwhile, someone has to pay that difference, and that is part of the economics associated with that,” he said.

Caudle also expressed reservations about the prospect of selling the water system. He said having the system operated by a third party could hinder economic development because there would be no guarantee the new owner would install water and sewer to a company looking to locate in the city.

“Right now, we can run water right out there,” Caudle said. “What if they can’t get to that project for two years? Then that company goes to another place and builds a building and employs people.”

If the city opts not to sell the water and sewer system, the delay in installing new water meters — if council votes to go in that direction — could make the switch more expensive.

The city received an interest rate of 2.06 percent over 10 years to finance the water meter project. However, that rate expires in less than two weeks. If the city proceeds with the project it will have to solicit a new financing rate, which could be higher or lower than the 2.06 percent.

City: Senior center will keep its same name

Elizabeth City officials called an audible on the choice of a name for the city and Pasquotank County’s new senior center Monday after more than two dozen senior citizens showed up to oppose the name being recommended.

The city was recommending naming the facility, located in the former Daily Advance building, the ECPC Center for Active Living. However, that name didn’t sit well with senior citizens who showed up for a public hearing, nor with the more than 200 citizens who signed a petition urging City Council to keep the word “senior” in the official name.

Council heard the seniors’ pleas and voted unanimously to name the new facility the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Senior Center, which is the name of current center at 200 East Ward Street.

The project is being funded through a joint interlocal agreement between the city and county. The governments paid a little over $1.1 million for the building to the former owners of The Daily Advance in June. Renovation costs and other associated fees to convert the former downtown office building into a senior center are estimated to cost $491,706.

Renovations to the building at 215 Water Street, which is over 10,000-square feet bigger than the current facility, are almost complete. The facility is scheduled to open March 1 and the city and county are conducting a joint capital campaign to furnish the facility.

The county voted to name the new facility the ECPC Center for Active Living earlier this month. County Manager Sparty Hammett said the Board of Commissioners took the action based on a recommendation from the city. Commissioners are expected to revisit the issue Monday and Hammett said they will “probably” vote to join the city in keeping the current name.

“Although the county acted first on that and named it the Active Living Center, the name didn’t originate with the county, it originated with the city,” Hammett said. “(City Manager) Rich Olson emailed me and said the name they were considering is the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Active Living Center.’’

Assistant City Manager Angela Cole said she and other city staff met with seniors concerned about the proposed name before the public hearing and decided the city needed to shift gears.

“The individuals standing behind me as well as the individuals that we met two-on-one, three-on-one and sometimes five-on-one made an impression that they want to be heard, to be identified as seniors,” Cole said. “It is necessary for us to pull back on our recommendation to you and allow our citizens, our seniors, to be heard.”

City resident Mary Walker thanked City Council for opening a new senior center, commenting that the current facility is too small. But she implored city leaders to keep the word “senior” in the facility’s official title.

“We have lived the life and we have done the work,” Walker said. “We want to still be called ‘seniors.’ We’ve lived and we want the name to be there. If anybody came to Elizabeth City looking for the senior center they would never find it. We really need the name ‘senior’ on it.”

James Robertson is the president of the Senior Club at the current facility. He presented council with a petition signed by 214 residents who couldn’t attend Monday’s meeting.

“I have been getting calls at home at all times of day and night because the name ‘senior’ was not mentioned,” Robertson said. “They said, ‘We have been living this long and we deserve it, we’ve earned it.’ We want to be called ‘seniors.’”

Councilor Kem Spence noted the center is not a new venue. Instead, it’s just a new building, he said.

“If it has been called this for this long, why bother (changing it)?” he asked.

EC man indicted on 5 felony child sex counts

An Elizabeth City man is in custody under a $100,000 secured bond after being charged with five felony sex offenses involving a child.

Jacob-Charles Clayton Baker, 21, of the 400 block of Elcinoca Drive, was arrested Jan. 17 and charged with one felony count each of statutory sex offense with a child by adult and disseminating obscenity, and three felony charges of taking indecent liberties with a child, according to a Pasquo-tank County Sheriff’s Office arrest report.

A grand jury indicted Baker on all charges on Jan. 6 and warrants for his arrest were issued the same day.

According to copies of court documents, the alleged offenses occurred over two period of time and involved the same child, who was younger than 16 in each incident.

The offense of statutory sex offense with a child by adult and two of the indecent liberties offenses occurred between Jan. 1 and Dec. 25, 2017. The disseminating obscenity offense and third offense of indecent liberties occurred on May 31, 2018.

Baker was confined at Albemarle District Jail on a $100,000 secured bond. An online search Tuesday afternoon indicated Baker was still in custody.

A court date for Baker in Pasquotank Superior Court has not been set.


Three gambling facilities raided

Local and state law enforcement officials wrapped up a year long investigation with raids at three local gambling facilities last week.

The raids were conducted at North Highway 17 Rec Center and North Highway 17 Rec Center Annex in Elizabeth City and Lamb’s Marina in Camden. In addition, the home of Curtis Markham was searched, according to Markham, who owns North Highway 17 Rec Center and North Highway 17 Rec Center Annex.

Local authorities reported a search was conducted at a home in Weeksville but did not state whose house it was.

After numerous complaints were received from throughout the area, District Attorney Andrew Womble requested a gambling task force be assembled to investigate and eradicate the problem, according to a press release from the District Attorney’s Office.

Special Agents with the NC Department of Alcohol Law Enforcement, investigators and deputies with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office and members from the Elizabeth City Police Department’s Drug Enforcement Unit raided three separate establishments that were operating as illegal casinos on Jan. 23, according to the press release.

According to the report, officers confiscated illegal video slot machines, fish tables, various other illegal gaming machines, computer equipment, screens/monitors and $210,000 in U.S. currency form the North Hwy 17 Rec Center, The North Hwy 17 Rec Center Annex, Lamb’s in Camden and at the Weeksville Road address.

The list of complaints the DA’s office received included family members who said their significant other was spending the family’s living expenses at the businesses, and claims of robbery within and around the establishments, plus alleged prostitution and drug sales.

Undercover ALE agents found the locations were operating as a casino. According to law enforcement officials, all three establishments were buildings open to the public where gambling games were being operated and played. Buildings were complete with an ATM machine and cash payouts were being made for winnings on the gambling machines, which are all characteristics of a casino.

It is a crime in North Carolina to gamble and/or operate illegal gaming machines.

The sheriff’s office and ALE officials are still investigating the complaints and arrests are expected.

Markham said the fish games he was operating at the two Highway 17 locations were the same games that were the subject of an injunction in Catawba County, which had allowed the business there to continue operating.

“That guy in Hickory is still in business,” Markham said, adding the injunction in Catawba County said no enforcement action could be taken against the fish games there until a civil lawsuit had been litigated.

Markham said he has hired attorney Danny Glover to represent him in the matter.

Markham runs a similar business in Chesapeake, Va.

“I’m still in business up there,” Markham said. “And I’m not illegal up there.”

Markham said he understands he’s in a controversial industry but he noted he pays taxes.

“I’ve been treated wrongly on this,” Markam said, adding that cash was taken from his personal safe at his home during the search. Officers woke him up at his home on Jan. 23 and wouldn’t allow to be present at either his home or the business while the searches were conducted, he said. He said his personal computer and tax records were taken in the search at his home.

He said ALE officers inspected his business at his request about a year ago and he told them then that if his operation was not legal they could call him and let him know that, and he would close.

“I didn’t hear anything after that until now,” he said. “I guess they were waiting until I had made some money.”

Markham denied that any robberies, illegal drug sales or prostitution had occurred at either of his locations.

“There has never been a robbery at my place. Period,” Markham said.

He said he didn’t allow drugs or drinking on his property.

“If I thought they were even thinking about doing anything illegal I kicked them out,” Markham said. He said he kicked a few people off the property because he suspected they might be trying to sell drugs.

“I kicked a few people off my property and that’s probably who was complaining on me,” Markham said.

Markham noted he hasn’t been charged at this time.

“I haven’t been charged with anything,” Markham said. “I don’t know what they are going to charge me with.”

He said he kept payroll records and other records in order to remain above-board.

Five people have lost their jobs because his business was shut down, he said.

“They’re just costing the state money,” Markham said, referring to the employees losing their income. “It’s dumb.”

Larry Lamb, owner of Lamb’s in Camden, said there was not much he could say about the seizure of the machines.

“I don’t own the machines,” Lamb said, explaining they are owned by Outer Banks Amusements.

David Shields of Outer Banks Amusements could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“I really don’t know what’s happening,” said Lamb, who noted no one had been arrested at this time.