Local legislation authorizing Elizabeth City to inspect rental units in the city before a new renter moves in is not an option, Third Ward Councilor Kem Spence said earlier this week.
State Rep. Bill Ward, R-Pasquotank, agreed to city officials’ request last month to introduce a local bill requiring inspections of vacant rental units before they can be re-rented. City officials had requested Ward’s help introducing the bill because they hope to hold landlords more accountable for living conditions in their rental units.
But Ward apparently told city officials that writing a local bill requiring the rental inspections in Elizabeth City isn’t possible, Spence told fellow councilors Monday.
“They could not make it (the bill) specific for Elizabeth City,” he said. “If they did do it it would have to be statewide.”
Despite that setback, Spence said the city has policies in place it can use to address conditions in rental units.
“We have other avenues to take and enforce what we have. We can start with that,” he said.
The city asked for the local legislation after councilors again heard last month about substandard and unsafe living conditions at River’s Landing and Walker’s Landing apartment complexes. City officials have previously said there are substandard living conditions in rental units all across the city.
First Ward Councilor Johnson Biggs said Ward told city officials about a current state law that allows for inspections. Biggs wants City Attorney William Morgan to provide City Council an in-depth review of the law and how it applies to the city at council’s March 27 meeting.
“It dictates exactly what our authorities are and what they aren’t,” Biggs said. “It goes through addressing complaints, it goes through remedies, it goes through the powers of public officers. We should have enough legal authority there to achieve what we want.”
Most of the complaints made to City Council over the past several months about the two apartment complexes are about excessive and dangerous mold because of unfixed water leaks. One resident alleged last month that the apartment complex’s management that she lives in has been advised of the mold problems but failed to address them.
Spence said he, Mayor Kirk Rivers, Third Ward Councilor Katherine Felton and Fourth Ward Councilor Barbara Baxter attempted to meet with the local property manager at one of the two complexes but they were rebuffed.
“They shut the door in our faces,” Spence said. “We walked up and she slammed the door in our faces, and called the police on us. With River’s Landing and Walker’s Landing, I feel we have enough evidence and pictures to get this out to the attorneys to start forcing them to move forward. They have the money to fix this mess up but they don’t want to.”
Councilor Joe Peel said the city needs to start enforcing the existing rental housing laws it has. He advocated for the hiring of additional inspectors, saying they should be included in the city’s 2023-24 fiscal budget that takes effect July 1.
“We certainly have people living in places that I wouldn’t put an animal in,” Peel said. “We have allowed to get this out of control. If you want me to vote for the budget the budget needs to contain a plan to fix this problem once and for all. If we have to hire a couple more inspectors, I’m all in.’’
City Manager Montre Freeman said a review of the city’s minimum housing code does not specifically address mold but does address uninhabitability. He said that part of the code was used to condemn two apartments at River’s Landing last summer because of a sewage backup.
“If it doesn’t meet the minimum housing code then further action is taken,’’ Freeman said.
The city’s code states that it is unlawful for a person, firm or corporation to be in conflict or in violation of the minimum housing code.
But enforcing the code can be a lengthy process, Freeman said.
“The ultimate goal is to come out with some mitigation,” he said. “You have to go through the process. There has to be a report, a hearing. There is a whole process you have to go through before you get to where any kind of criminal record can come out of it.”
Rivers said the city has the power to cut electricity to substandard units but that would create other problems.
“The problem is if you cut 100 units where do you put 100 families?” Rivers asked. “I don’t feel comfortable cutting power to 100 families.”
CAMDEN — Camden Middle School, the only remaining middle school in the area with just seventh- and eighth-graders, will add sixth-graders when the new school year starts in August.
The Camden County Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve the move.
Camden Middle School Principal Mike Reaves said a combination of factors prompted the move.
Most school districts across the state have gone to a middle school model with grades 6-8 in a single school.
“That was part of it,” Reaves said.
Interim Superintendent Travis Twiford said the course content at Camden Middle School is also more appropriate for sixth-grade students. And the change will also provide Camden sixth-graders access to inter-scholastic athletics in all sports except football.
“All of these factors I think played into it,” Reaves said.
One other benefit to the move is that Camden’s middle and intermediate schools will no longer have to share teachers. Some teachers have been starting their day at Camden Middle School and then going to Camden Intermediate to finish out the day. Now they will be able to remain at the middle school all day long.
Reaves acknowledged that will be a benefit of the move but said “what is best for kids” remained the driving factor.
He noted that the mission of a middle school is to be a bridge that moves students from elementary school to high school, and prepares them for success in high school.
“That’s our job,” Reaves said. “Now we can really do that for our middle school students.”
The school board gave school staff the green light in September to move forward with planning the move. School officials were advised to finalize the plan after an update in January.
With the arrival of some 140 sixth-graders in August, enrollment at Camden Middle School is projected to be 420 for the 2022-23 school year.
The school gets close to maximum capacity at 450, and according to Reaves and Twiford, could accommodate a few more students than that with minor adjustments.
“We’ll still have some capacity for growth at 420,” Reaves said.
The move will free up some space at both Camden Intermediate School and Grandy Primary School. Twiford said discussions are taking place about the best way to make use of that space. Plans include bringing all classes at Grandy and Camden Intermediate out of mobile units and into the buildings.
Twiford said getting classes out of trailers will be better and more convenient, “and more conducive to a good learning environment.” But both he and Reaves reiterated that the move is motivated primarily by a desire to improve student achievement.
Reaves has already held meetings with parents about the move, and has more meetings scheduled. On April 19, Camden schools will hold a meeting for parents of rising sixth-graders, and a similar meeting for parents of rising seventh-graders on April 20. Students also will get a chance to visit the school and learn about its teachers and facilities on both dates.
A welcome letter will go home to families during the first week of April.
“That will be like the traditional welcome letter to the school,” Reaves said.
All the sixth-grade teachers plan to make the move to the middle school, according to Twiford.
“That was their choice,” he said. “They wanted to move together.”
Reaves said teachers “have certainly been excited about the move.”
The Pasquotank County Democratic Party has nominated a Pasquotank sheriff’s deputy who works in courthouse security to fill the vacant Southern Inside seat on the Board of Commissioners.
Clifford E. Shaw, of the 1000 block of Southern Ave., Elizabeth City, is the party executive committee’s choice to complete the unexpired term of Cecil Perry, the longtime commissioner who resigned last month, party Chairwoman Laurie Slutz told The Daily Advance Wednesday.
Slutz said the party’s executive committee met at the courthouse Monday and voted to nominate Shaw after interviewing him and two other applicants for the vacancy. The other two were Linwood Gallop, who unsuccessfully sought appointment in December to an at-large seat on the commission board; and Michael Brooks, a former city councilor in Elizabeth City’s 3rd Ward.
Asked why the panel chose Shaw, Slutz said: “He was liked by more people than the other two” candidates.
Slutz said she’s “hopeful” county commissioners will accept the committee’s nominee — something they didn’t do in December when Democrats picked Gallop to fill the vacancy created by the death of At-large Commissioner Bill Sterritt. The Board of Commissioners ended up voting 4-1 to appoint Sam Davis III, a Realtor and former commissioner, to the seat instead.
Perry, who cast the lone vote against Davis’ appointment, made a motion to appoint Gallop to the vacancy but his motion failed for lack of a second. He resigned from the board less than two months later after none of his colleagues seconded his motion to adopt a “4-2-1” restructuring plan for electing county commissioners.
Under state law, commissioners are required to “consult” the county executive committee of the “appropriate” local political party when filling board vacancies. Appropriate means the party that the former officeholder belonged to.
However, commissioners are not bound by the party’s choice, and can instead choose someone else — as they did filling the Sterritt vacancy. The only requirements are that the person appointed be of the same party and be registered in the same district as the person that’s being replaced.
Asked if she’s confident the Board of Commissioners will accept the executive committee’s choice of Shaw to complete Perry’s term, Slutz said, “I think we’re past being confident after what happened last time. I’m hopeful that the board will appoint” our nominee.
It’s not known when commissioners will take up Shaw’s nomination. Under state law, commissioners have 60 days from the date of the creation of a board vacancy to fill it. Because Perry’s resignation took effect on Feb. 8, commissioners have until April 9 to make the appointment.
Slutz said she planned to forward Shaw’s name to county officials likely Thursday or Friday.
As of noon Thursday, the Democratic Party had not notified the county that it is recommending Shaw. The appointment is not on the agenda for Monday’s commissioners meeting that was posted Thursday afternoon.
Board Chairman Charles Jordan said he has gotten to know Shaw recently and has had several conversations with him.
“So far, so good,” Jordan said. “I don’t see any reason now why he wouldn’t be qualified.”
Jordan said if Shaw is approved by commissioners having someone with a law enforcement background could benefit the board.
“(Shaw) has had some experience with some of the things we deal with, so yes it could be a plus,” Jordan said.
According to Slutz, Shaw is 58 and works as a Pasquotank Sheriff’s deputy. He is retired from the N.C. Department of Correction and is a graduate of Elizabeth City State University.
Shaw declined comment when reached Wednesday evening, saying he preferred to wait until his nomination is officially submitted to commissioners.
Staff Writer Paul Nielsen contributed to this report.
Elizabeth City City Council will discuss later this month whether to authorize city officials to conduct a new or updated water and sewer rate study or stick with one conducted more than two years ago.
Council is also scheduled to vote at its March 27 meeting on a proposal to raise residential water rates by 7.5% and sewer rates by 4%. Commercial rates would rise 8% percent for water and 6% for sewer under the proposal.
Documents provided to City Council on Tuesday show that the rate hikes, if approved following a public hearing, would generate an additional $679,350 in combined annual water and sewer revenue that could be used to finance the city’s infrastructure needs.
The residential and commercial sewer rate hikes would generate $233,773 in additional revenue, $111,690 of it from residential customers. The total increase in revenue from current water rates would bring in an additional $445,577, more than half of it — $242,046 — from residential users.
City officials said Monday that most residential customers use 1,000 gallons a month and under the proposed increases that would mean a monthly increase of $2.65 for a combined water and sewer bill.
A residential customer inside the city using 3,000 gallons a month would see a combined water and sewer increase of $4.15 a month. Residential customers outside the city using the same amount of water and sewer would see a combined monthly hike of $5.08.
The state’s Local Government Commission directed the city late last year to perform a rate study before raising rates, the revenue from which could be used to finance the city’s critical water and sewer infrastructure needs. The city is on the LGC’s Unit Assistance list because of ongoing financial concerns.
During a presentation to City Council in December, LGC Director Sharon Edmundson told councilors the city needs to boost revenues in its water and sewer funds, noting the city has been generating only enough revenue to pay the bills.
Edmundson, however, did not know that the city had paid for a rate study in 2020. She later directed city officials to update the study.
The 2020 study by the consulting firm Raftelis recommended City Council increase sewer rates by 50% in 2020-21, followed by 3-percent increases in each of the next eight years before ending with a 9-percent increase in 2028-29. The study said the city needed to spend $37 million over 10 years on improvements.
The former City Council that paid for the Raftelis study cut the recommended 50% sewer rate increase for 2020-21 to 25% but then added a 28% increase in 2021-22, which was followed by no increase in the current budget.
City Manager Montre Freeman told City Council Monday night before recommending smaller rate increases than what councilors ultimately approved that the Raftelis study is still valid.
“I do want to point out your current study is valid through 2029,” Freeman said.
Freeman said the Raftelis study could be updated at a cost of between $23,000 and $25,000 or the city could get a free, but less in-depth study, from the N.C. Rural Water Association.
But Freeman said the RWA couldn’t perform a free study until at least October and possibly as late as December. He also said that the RWA offers an in-depth study at a cost but he did not know what it would be.
“At our next meeting, I would like to see the city manager be able to tell us what the difference is between updating the Raftelis study and how much would it cost for that group (RWA) to do a comparable Raftelis study,” said Councilor Joe Peel. “I think it will be more than $25,000.”
Freeman told City Council he has looked at the budget and has identified money that could be used for a study.
“But it would definitely make us tight, very tight,” Freeman said.
First Ward Councilor Johnson Biggs questioned whether the current study is still valid because high inflation over the last several years has increased construction costs.
“In my mind, the (2020) study is out of date,” Biggs said. “We know everything has gone up significantly. I don’t know how we can operate with a known outdated study.”
Biggs said he favored moving forward Monday with an updated Raftelis study, saying the new numbers will allow City Council to see what type of rate increase may be needed in the 2023-24 fiscal year budget that begins July 1 “to keep us moving forward.” But he did not call for a vote, saying he would wait and see if using RWA was an option.
Councilor Kem Spence said the city has no option but to raise rates at its March 27 meeting but suggested that income generated from the rate hikes could be used to pay for a study.
“Even with the $25,000 for the study, I feel like if we raise this water and sewer enough now then in October we could do the study,” Spence said. “If we go to (new) rates that should bring a pretty good amount of revenue in to help us bring us out of the slump we are in.’’
CAMDEN — Camden County plans to make a formal complaint to the N.C. Utilities Commission about the South Mills Water Association, requesting the state agency investigate the nonprofit water association’s ability to serve its member customers.
Camden County Manager Erin Burke said Friday that Camden is in the process of gathering information for its request and will make a formal submittal to the regulatory agency.
The move comes a month after the South Mills Water Association asked the county to sell it additional water following operational failures at its water plant. It also comes two months after a majority of water association members voted to sell their water system to Camden but the vote fell short of the threshold needed to approve the sale.
According to Burke, the association has resumed full plant operations and is no longer buying emergency water from Camden. She said the county’s sales of the additional water to the association ended about two weeks after they began.
At an emergency meeting Feb. 3, Camden commissioners approved selling an additional 30,000 gallons of water per day to the association on an emergency basis, pending repairs to the association’s plant. The association already buys some water from Camden on an ongoing basis.
During that same meeting, County Attorney John Morrison was authorized to report the association’s emergency to the N.C. Utilities Commission and request that the panel inspect the association’s water treatment plant.
Morrison noted that because the association is a private nonprofit corporation, it is not generally subject to regulation by the utilities panel. But the plant emergency likely amounted to an exception to those rules, he said. Morrison said he believed a review by the N.C. Utilities Commission was warranted under the circumstances.
A representative from the Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission told The Daily Advance in February that it had not determined whether it would conduct an inspection and evaluation of the South Mills Water Association water system.
The association is exempt from the utilities panel’s regulation under a 2004 exemption order. Nonetheless, Camden officials continue to question whether the association is serving the public interest.
A majority of the association’s members also have apparent concerns about the nonprofit’s ability to continue providing them water.
According to documents provided to The Daily Advance, a majority of the association’s members voted earlier this year to support selling the association’s water system to Camden. But a resolution supporting the sale failed because it did not garner the super-majority of votes that was required.
At a special called meeting of association members on Jan. 10, the South Mills Water Association Board of Directors presented a resolution calling for the sale of the association’s system to Camden.
Recalling that a previous vote to sell the system on May 4, 2022, was 35-26 in favor of the sale but did not reach the required two-thirds threshold, the board in its notice of the Jan. 10 meeting stated “the Board continues to believe that selling the System to Camden County is in the best interest of the Association and its members.”
“The Board has carefully considered all of its options,” the meeting notice stated. “Increased rates, the lack of water supply along with increased demand makes it impossible for the Association to operate successfully over the coming years.”
The resolution called for the price of the system to be negotiated, with the stipulation that it would at least cover any outstanding debt owed by the association.
The South Mills Water Association has never been subject to regulation by the N.C. Utilities Commission, and in 2004 the association sought and received an official determination from the N.C. Utilities Commission that it would be deemed exempt from regulation.
The 2004 motion for exemption presented by the utility panel’s public staff states that the exemption can be revoked if the commission “finds that circumstances have changed to the extent that the public convenience and necessity require regulation in order to protect the public interest.”
The Daily Advance has sought comment from the South Mills Water Association but has not received a response.