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At long last: Camden breaks ground on new high school

CAMDEN — A new high school has ranked high on the list of priorities for Camden County for more than a decade.

So how is an afternoon of rain going to stop those long-awaited plans from becoming reality?

Despite gray skies and a nagging rainfall, Camden school and government officials broke ground on the county’s new $33 million high school project on Wednesday. The ceremony was held under a sprawling tent at the entrance of the new school property, which is located off N.C. Highway 343 about 2 miles north of the current high school.

“This has been a long time coming,” said schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell, who was joined by members of the Camden school board in presiding over the 30-minute ceremony. “Let it rain a little bit; we’ll be OK.”

Also in attendance was John Dunn, who served as schools superintendent from 2000 to 2006. Ferrell told the audience that prior to the ceremony he was speaking to Dunn and asked him if school officials were discussing a new high school when he was in charge.

“Yes, and it’s a long time coming,” Ferrell said Dunn replied, which drew laughter from the audience.

Ferrell described the start of construction of the new high school as an “important milestone in our community.” He also thanked Camden residents who supported the new high school by voting “yes” for a bond referendum on the November 2020 general election ballot.

“I want to express my sincere appreciation to the 73% of voters who said ‘yes’ to this new school for our children,” Ferrell said. “Without you and without them we would not be where we are with this project today. So, a huge thank-you to them.”

Voters approved the school bond by a vote of 72.96 percent in favor to 27.04% opposed.

Ferrell also thanked the school board and the Camden Board of Commissioners for their support.

Addressing the county’s critical need for the new high school was Christian Overton, chairman of the school board.

“Thirty years ago, Camden County High School graduated a class of 66 seniors,” Overton said. “As evidence of the substantial growth of Camden’s student population over the years, this year the combined two high schools will graduate 133 seniors.”

Overton was referring to the current high school and Camden Early College High School, which are both housed on the same campus. The new campus also will house both schools.

In the last several years the county has made several renovations and upgrades to the current high school, as well as to Grandy Primary and Camden intermediate and middle schools.

Those improvements were made “knowing one day that a new high school complex would be needed,” Overton said. “In 2008, the Camden County Board of Commissioners purchased this plot of land to build a new high school complex on.”

According to tentative construction completion plans, the first class to graduate from the new high school could be the class of 2024, Overton said.

Also speaking briefly was Millicent Harrington, a Camden resident who chaired the 11-member committee that urged voters to approve the bond referendum.

“This new high school opens up new opportunities for each school within our community,” Harrington said. “The sky is the limit.”

Gasoline supply slowly returns to normal

Local fuel retailers were expecting shipments of gasoline Thursday — but some cautioned it could still take a day or so before gas supplies are closer to normal in the wake of this week’s temporary disruption of Colonial Pipeline’s operations.

Raj Patel of Eagle Mart stores said Thursday morning that he was expecting to get a new supply of gasoline sometime Thursday but wasn’t sure when it would arrive.

Patel noted that the supply chain was operating as it should but the gas supplies at retail stores has been affected by consumers’ panic buying.

“People are buying more than they can consume,” Patel said.

He likened the situation to spring 2020 when people were panic-buying toilet paper because of concerns about the then growing COVID-19 pandemic.

For a few days there may continue to be situations where fuel will run out before everyone who is looking to gas up their vehicle will be able to, he said.

Patel said it’s like trying to feed 100 children. You will have enough for the first in line but can’t be certain the supply won’t run out before you get to the end of the line.

A manager at Park ‘N Shop on Ehringhaus Street said a delivery of gasoline was expected by noon Thursday. A reporter observed customers fueling up their vehicles at the store around 5 p.m. without much of a line.

According to The Associated Press, nearly 70 percent of gas stations in North Carolina were without fuel because of the panic buying, as were half the stations in South Carolina and Georgia.

The AP’s source for the stations without gas was GasBuddy.com, the online gas tracking site.

In a Thursday update, Colonial Pipeline, the Georgia-based pipeline company, said gasoline delivery is now underway in most of its markets. Colonial was forced to shut down pipeline operations a week ago following a cyberattack thought to have been carried out by a Russian gang.

The Colonial Pipeline, the nation’s largest fuel pipeline, stretches from Texas to New Jersey, but the northeastern U.S. has seen fewer disruptions since those states are supplied more by other sources such as ocean tankers.

Gas is flowing again across most of the Deep South, and other parts that were offline in the Mid-Atlantic region were expected to become operational later Thursday, the company said.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and officials at North Carolina Emergency Management announced Thursday that they were continuing to monitor the effects of the shutdown on the gasoline supply in the state.

“Now that Colonial has restarted pipeline operations, we will see a gradually increasing return to normal conditions that will take several days,” Cooper said in a statement released by his office. “There is available fuel supply in and around our state, and it will take time for tankers to move that supply to the stations that are experiencing shortages.”

Freeman: Consensus forming for 5-cent tax rate hike

It appears City Council wants to cut City Manager Montre Freeman’s proposed 10-cent property tax rate hike in half.

Freeman told city councilors Monday that after meeting with them individually that there’s a “consensus” for a property tax rate increase of 5 cents.

“That five cents is based on conversations that I have had with everybody,” Freeman said. “The five (cent rate hike) has come from more than one person around council. It is something we can work with and put together into a plan.’’

Freeman last month proposed a 10-cent increase to the city’s property tax rate, in part to better position the city to borrow money for much-needed water and sewer upgrades. A 10-cent hike would increase the property tax rate from 65.5 cents per $100 valuation to 75.5 cents.

The city’s last property tax increase was in 2017 when council agreed to raise the tax rate by 1.5 cents. That extra money was used on items in the city’s 2017-18 budget.

If Freeman’s proposed 10-cent tax rate increase was approved by council, a city resident with a home valued at $100,000 would see their annual property tax bill increase by $100. A 5-cent increase in the rate would cost that homeowner $50 more a year.

Freeman told councilors when he presented his budget for 2021-22 last month that the tax increase is needed to boost the city’s fund balance. He said the city needs to be in a better financial position to take on debt to finance much-needed sewer improvements, and a stronger fund balance would accomplish that.

The city borrowed $320,000 from the fund balance last fiscal year to balance the city budget and it expects to borrow an additional $500,000 in the current fiscal year. The city also borrowed from its fund balance the previous two fiscal years.

Those transfers will drop the fund balance to 19.5 percent of the city’s general fund expenditures at the end of the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The fund balance was at 20.71 percent at the end of the last fiscal year on June 30, 2020.

While the N.C. Local Government Commission recommends local governments keep at least 8 percent of their general fund expenditures in fund balance, City Council has a policy of keeping that percentage at a minimum of 15 percent.

The LGC must approve a municipalities’ request to take on debt.

“The 10 cents (increase) addresses that LGC because, again, I’m trying to make sure we are in the best possible position to issue debt if we need to,” Freeman said. “The issuing of debt for addressing (sewer) capacity is not going to be a small number.’’

The city is also set to receive almost $5.2 million in federal COVID-19 funds and that money could be used to fund infrastructure projects.

Freeman also said a healthy fund balance would help the city in the event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane, noting that reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm damage is a lengthy process.

Freeman also said the city had spent $221,000 as of May 7 on additional public safety in the aftermath of the shooting death of Andrew Brown by Pasquotank sheriff’s deputies on April 21.

“And we are still going,” Freeman said of the added cost. “No one in the country prepares for civil unrest, but here we are.’’

The city is also about to receive the results of a pay study and Freeman expects that to show that employee pay is 16 percent “under where we need to be with our salaries.”

“That 10 cents (property tax rate increase) answers all of these questions,” Freeman said.

City Council must approve a 2021-22 fiscal budget by June 30. Councilors are expected to hold another budget discussion on May 24.

City eyes reviving off-line sewer station to boost capacity

Elizabeth City officials are exploring bringing an off-line waste station at the city’s wastewater treatment facility back into service as a way to expand the city’s sewer capacity.

City Manager Montre Freeman recently told City Council during a budget work session that if the off-line unit can be brought back into use it would give the city time to better plan financing for a needed new wastewater treatment plant.

That financing plan could include a combination of water and sewer rate hikes over the next several years along will borrowing money to finance a new wastewater plant.

“That will give us some time,” Freeman said of possibly bringing the unit back into service. “We can plan out economically what we need for a new facility. Ultimately, we are going to need a new one. We know we can’t do that overnight.’’

City Council was told in May 2020 by an outside consultant that the city needed to spend $37 million over the next 10 years to upgrade its system. That report included almost $6.5 million for a new Public Utilities Multiplex in fiscal year 2028-29.

About half of the $37 million in those suggested capital upgrades would go toward improving performance of city sewer lines.

Freeman told council that it is too early to provide accurate cost estimates for bringing the off-line unit back into service and building a new wastewater treatment plant.

The city is set to have an engineering firm inspect the off-line unit to determine the cost of bringing it back online.

“We have a team of engineers now looking at what we need to do,” Freeman said. “What we need to do right away, and what we need to do over a period of time. This engineering firm will answer all of the questions that we have and any questions that we haven’t thought of yet.”

Short-term rental ordinance heads to town council (copy)

EDENTON — A proposed short-term rental ordinance is now in the hands of Edenton Town Council following the town Planning Board’s recommendation it be approved.

At previous town council meetings, councilors debated how to best deal with whole-house short-term rentals. In March, council asked town staff to revise the ordinance language specifically for whole-house short-term rentals. The planning board was supposed to review the revised proposal and make a recommendation.

The revision the Planning Board unanimously recommended includes language requiring the Edenton Board of Adjustment to review all special use permit applications for new whole-house short-term rentals in residential zoning districts.

The Planning Board also recommended Town Council consider language allowing a six-month amortization period to current whole-house short-term rentals before owners are required to apply for the required permit.The town’s Unified Development Ordinance currently does not allow for short-term rentals in any zoning district.

Town Council is slated to review the draft ordinance at its June meeting. Council can still modify the draft ordinance before approving and finalizing it.