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Parker breaks tie, council moves forward with 5-cent property tax hike

Mayor Bettie Parker cast a tie-splitting vote Monday in favor a city spending plan for next year that includes a 5-cent property tax rate hike to help fund pay raises for city employees.

Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Johnny Walton, Darius Horton and Kem Spence joined Parker in voting for the $69.3 million budget plan that also raises the average monthly water and sewer bill by almost $10 a month. City officials have said the extra revenue is part of a plan to start funding needed improvements in the two systems.

Voting against the budget plan that includes those increases were Councilors Jeannie Young, Chris Ruffieux, Billy Caudle and Michael Brooks.

The budget plan will now be presented at a public hearing on June 28. City Council has to approve a budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year before July 1.

Parker, who broke a 4-4 tie, said she would have supported a 7-cent increase in the property tax rate to give city employees a bigger raise. She voted for the lower increase, she said, because it was a compromise.

“I would love the 7-cents (increase) but I will go for the 5 cents,” Parker said after breaking the tie.

Council can still make changes to the budget at the public hearing. A 5-cent increase will raise the city’s property tax from 65.5 cents per $100 of valuation to 70.5 cents and raise almost $560,000 in additional revenue.

A big part of that increased revenue — $363,048 — will go toward raises for almost all city employees. That is an overall increase of 3 percent in money paid to city employees.

A 7-percent property tax hike would have hiked city salaries by 5 percent overall, or almost $590,000.

Council recently received the results of a pay study that showed city salaries were not competitive with those in local government in surrounding towns and counties.

City Manager Montre Freeman first proposed a budget with a 10-cent property tax rate increase. He pared that increase back after a majority of council instructed him at their last meeting to return with a budget based on a 5-cent rate hike.

“The 5-percent COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) puts us in a better position to stop the rapid exodus of employees,” Freeman explained to council before council decided on a 3-percent COLA. “It also allows us to keep some of the ones we have.’’

The budget also adds a new position in human resources and a second in information technology that will cost a total of $106,000. The budget also allocates $50,000 toward a city homeless shelter and $50,000 to help the Boys & Girls Club.

The budget also includes money to finance a new $946,464 fire ladder truck and five new patrol vehicles for the police department.

“The things we are being presented are definitely things that we need,” Adkins said. “If we cut those things, it doesn’t put us in a good spot.”

But Young said now is not the time to raise taxes as the city begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know what effect the sting of COVID has had on property owners and business owners,” Young said. “It (COVID) has had a tremendous drain on just an average family. People are still struggling.’’

A 5-cent property tax rate increase would raise the tax bill by $50 on property valued at $100,000 and by $150 on property valued at $300,000.

Freeman told City Council that at least $7 million is needed to make sewer improvements and he is recommending that the city use federal COVID relief funds and debt financing to make those fixes.

The city will receive around $5.1 million in COVID relief funds over the next two years. The city has budgeted money for an engineering report to identify the fixes needed.

“It is our goal to address wastewater capacity in its totality,” Freeman said. “The first phase will be to issue debt and the second phase, depending on what the engineering firm tells us, is to go forward with a plan to eradicate the issues that we have.’’

Raising awareness: Camden seniors warned about scams, abuse

CAMDEN — Camden retirees learned Tuesday how to avoid falling prey to internet scams, telephone hustles, insurance fraud and other nefarious activities that target elderly residents.

About 40 residents attended the Camden County Elder Abuse Awareness Lunch at Camden Community Park, Tuesday morning. The event was organized by the Camden Center for Active Adults and its coordinator, Laura Jolley.

Several people from various related agencies spoke on ways to prevent becoming victims to elder abuse, as well as other safety precautions.

“Don’t make yourself a soft target,” warned Ross Munro, a retired U.S. Navy master chief.

Munro, who also is a county commissioner, discussed indicators residents should look for to detect a potential email or internet scam.

“If it sounds too good to be true, don’t click on it,” he said. “Just delete it.”

Munro told residents it is important that they feel secure in their homes, and suggested several steps, such as locking their doors and installing a video doorbell that interacts with their smart phone, they can take to ensure their safety. As important as it is for residents to protect themselves within their homes, it is equally important they protect their homes when they are away, Munro said. One way to do this is to not announce they are not home on social media.

“Please, don’t post you’re going on a trip,” he said. “You just let everybody know you’re not going to be home.”

Munro recommended elderly residents wait until they return home from their trip to post photos to social media.

When shopping online, residents should verify that the website they are visiting is secured for financial transactions. To do this, Munro said residents should check the website’s URL to ensure it begins with https://, and not http://, like an unsecured website’s URL would appear. The letter ‘s’ in https:// is an indicator the site is secured.

Following Munro, Sheriff Kevin Jones discussed a number of other precautions seniors should follow, such as frequently changing the passwords of all email and websites they use. Jones discussed the range of telephone calls residents are receiving, such as car warranty extension offers, and other calls possibly designed to get their personal information.

The sheriff also advised residents to dispose of their expired or unwanted prescription medications in the drop box at the sheriff’s office. Doing so can prevent medications from being stolen or accidentally ingested by someone else.

Lisa Barker, regional manager of the Seniors Health Insurance Information Program of the N.C. Department of Insurance, discussed several issues affecting elderly people, including emotional abuse.

“Emotional abuse is about maintaining control,” Barker said, adding the person committing the abuse will likely not hurt the victim physically. Emotional abuse over time, however, can be damaging.

Gail Ward, with Disaster Health Services of the Northeastern North Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross, discussed the importance residential smoke detectors.

The national Red Cross responds to about 60,000 disasters a year, and most of them are house fires, Ward said. She urged residents to ensure they have smoke alarms in their homes that are in good working condition and with good batteries.

She also urged residents to create an escape plan for exiting their home within two minutes in the event of a fire.

Laura Jolley said the Camden Center for Active Adults wanted to hold an awareness event because it is something the Albemarle Commission does every year but wasn’t able to do in 2020 because of COVID-19. Tuesday’s event was designed to help make residents aware of the many services available to the county’s elderly population, she said.

Lynne Raisor, a family caregiver resource specialist for the Albemarle Commission’s Area Agency on Aging, opened the line of speakers by discussing the many services the commission provides residents. The commission is located at 512 S. Church Street in Hertford and can be reached by telephone at 252-426-5753.

Other agencies and businesses participating in Tuesday’s event included the Elizabeth City Fire Department, Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management, Todd’s Pharmacy, Sentara Health and Atlantic Union bank.

ARHS: Only 16 new COVID cases reported in region last week

Only 16 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the eight-county region last week and only 26 coronavirus cases were considered active as of Thursday — both signs the region continues to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.

In even more encouraging news: only three counties in the region are coded yellow on the state’s latest COVID-19 County Alert System report, meaning they’re still seeing “significant” impact from the coronavirus.

Four other counties are coded light yellow in the June 10 report, indicating “moderate” COVID impact, and one county — Currituck — is coded green, becoming the first in the region to report “low” impact from the virus.

According to the report, compiled by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, only six counties in the state are now coded orange, which designates “substantial” COVID impact. Thirty-six, including Camden, Pasquotank and Chowan, are coded yellow; 49, including Perquimans, Gates, Hertford and Bertie, are coded light yellow; and nine, including Currituck, are coded green.

Counties seeing significant COVID impact reported between 20 and 100 new virus cases per 100,000 people from May 23 to June 5 and also had test positive rates — the percentage of COVID tests that come back positive — during that period of between 5% and 7.9%.

Pasquotank’s case rate per 100,000 people was 95.4 and its positive test rate was 6.7%. Camden’s case rate was 64.4 and its positive test rate was 7.8%. Chowan’s case rate was 121.9 and its positive test rate was 5.2%

Counties reporting moderate COVID impact saw between 10 and 19 new virus cases per 100,000 people during that 14-day period and had test positive rates of between 3% and 4.9%.

Perquimans’ case rate was 29.7 and its positive test rate was 1.9%. Gates’ case rate was 43.2 and its positive test rate was 3.8%. The case rates and positive test rates for Bertie and Hertford were 42.2 and 3% and 16.9 and .9%, respectively.

Currituck and the other eight counties in the low impact tier reported fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people and test positive rates lower than 2.9%. Currituck’s case rate was 7.2 and its test positive rate was 1.1%.

The 16 new COVID-19 cases reported in the eight-county region last week is 40 fewer than the week before and 55 fewer than the week before that. Total cases in the eight-county region still remain under 13,000, Albemarle Regional Health Services data show.

The number of active cases, meanwhile, was half what they were the week before. And for the second week in a row, every county in the region reported active cases in the single digits. Most significantly, two counties — Currituck and Camden — reported no active cases, the first time that’s happened since early in the pandemic last year.

In yet another positive trend, the region’s positive COVID-19 test rate — the rate of COVID tests that come back positive — fell again for the fourth straight week, dipping by more than 2% to 2.37%.

ARHS did report two COVID-19 related deaths last week, one in Pasquotank County and one in Chowan County. Both were persons older than 65, the agency said.

New vaccinations against COVID remained steady, as ARHS and its partners administered another 782 first doses of vaccine and another 1,180 second doses of Moderna vaccine or single doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. According to ARHS, 51.86% of the population in the eight-county region age 12 and older has now received at least one dose of vaccine and 49.81% are fully vaccinated.

To encourage more North Carolina residents to get the vaccine, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Thursday that North Carolina will offer a $4 million Summer Cash and College Tuition lottery.

All state residents 12 and older who have been vaccinated with at least one dose are eligible for the lottery’s four drawings that will be held every other Wednesday starting June 23 and ending Aug. 4. Those vaccinated after June 10 will be entered twice for each drawing, increasing their chance of winning. Entries will be drawn from state COVID-19 vaccination records.

Battle Betts, ARHS director, said his agency is hoping the lottery will spark a surge in vaccinations across the region.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our state and community and a great way to reward those already vaccinated and encourage those who have not received their vaccine yet,” he said.

ARHS said it continues to take appointments for all three vaccines: Moderna, J&J and now Pfizer. Appointments are available through the agency’s eight local health departments.

ECSU on track to have accreditation reaffirmed

Gloria Payne

Elizabeth City State University officials will find out in December whether the university’s accreditation is reaffirmed for another 10 years.

Campus officials reported last week that ECSU’s application to have its accreditation reaffirmed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, is on track for approval.

Gloria Payne, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, told the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Academic Excellence and Strategic Growth that a SACSCOC reaffirmation committee performed an on-site review of ECSU over four days in March. The review, performed virtually because of the pandemic, found ECSU in compliance with all standards, she said.

The reaffirmation panel did make three recommendations on strengthening the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which is focused on career readiness, Payne said.

Payne didn’t say specifically what the recommendations were, and members of the trustee committee didn’t ask. But she said the university is required to have a response to the committee’s recommendations by Aug. 18.

“We expect to respond successfully to the recommendations,” she said.

The SACSCOC Board of Trustees will then vote on ECSU’s application at its December meeting “and we’ll know if we’re reaffirmed,” Payne said.

Chancellor Karrie Dixon emphasized that none of the reaffirmation panel’s recommendations pertained to the university’s compliance with SACSCOC standards, but instead referred “to our Quality Enhancement Plan, which is an additional component.”

Asked later for a copy of the reaffirmation panel’s recommendations on the QEP, campus officials declined to provide one.

“We cannot provide a copy of the recommendations for QEP at this time,” Payne said in an email. “However, the recommendations were based on tips for strengthening the assessment portion of the QEP and demonstration of stakeholders’ buy-in for the longevity of the QEP.”

In a follow-up email, Payne said ECSU will release the QEP and the recommendations once the reaffirmation process is complete.

“When SACSCOC officials complete and present the entire report in December, we will be excited to share the information,” she read.

According to Payne, the Quality Enhancement Plan, is “an integral component of the reaffirmation of accreditation process.” All universities are required to develop a QEP that “focuses on an issue that the institution considers important for the improvement of student learning outcomes and/or student success.”

Beside identifying a topic for the QEP, a school has to show “broad-based support of institutional constituencies” for the plan, commit resources to completing it, and then be able to assess achievement of its plan, she said.

According to SACSCOC’s website, the purpose of accreditation is to ensure that colleges and universities meet an acceptable common set of standards for quality and integrity. SACSCOC, the accrediting agency for 11 southern states, including North Carolina, and Latin America, determines whether a college or university is meeting those standards.

Accreditation is important because it indicates to a wide variety of stakeholders — everyone from potential students and their parents to state lawmakers and donors to the U.S. Department of Education — that a college or university is meeting that common set of standards and delivering on its higher education mission.

Besides determining whether a college or university’s mission is “appropriate to higher education,” SACSCOC reviewers determine if the school has the resources, programs and services to accomplish that mission. They also look at whether a school’s educational objectives are consistent with its mission and degree programs, and how successful a school is “assessing its achievement of objectives and demonstrating improvements.”

After initially earning accreditation, universities and colleges reapply to SACSCOC for reaffirmation of their accreditation every 10 years. Besides seeking reaffirmation every decade, campuses are also required to submit a 5th year report to SACSCOC, ECSU noted.

Meads Pool not opening this summer

After nine years of operating Meads Pool under a lease agreement with Pasquotank County, the nonprofit Alton E. Meads Recreation Center will not be opening the pool this year.

Carl Ralph explained that the Alton E. Meads Recreation Center had concluded that it was not feasible to continue operating the pool under the existing lease agreement with the county, which began in 2011.

The Meads family, who built and originally operated the pool, donated it to Pasquotank County in 2001. In 2009 and 2010, the county implemented a number of budget cuts that included closing the pool.

Concerned community members including Ralph and some members of the Meads family came together and agreed to operate the pool under what was initially a five-year lease.

The center’s lease in recent years has been on a year-to-year basis and the pool did not open last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ralph said the existing lease requires the operator to cover all of the pool’s maintenance and operational costs and the center determined it was not feasible to continue on that basis this year.

In years past the Boys & Girls Club of Elizabeth City has made frequent trips to the pool during the summer. That didn’t happen last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This summer the club will be taking a number of field trips, including a zoo in Virginia, this week and trips to the Outer Banks, Camp Cale and the new movie theater in Elizabeth City, according to Hashira Rodriguez, unit director for the club.