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Bladen County Commission Sits Down to a Healthy Platter of Topics

By: Blake Proctor

The Board of County Commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting was called to order at 6:30pm, Monday, May 18th; the Board met telephonically due to the Covid19 pandemic. Following an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, the first item of business was the approval of a nineteen-item consent agenda, which was quickly disposed of by unanimous vote.

Dr. Amanda Lee, President of Bladen Community College, came before the Board to present an update of the College’s condition and standing. She asserted that BCC’s finances were in good condition and that the College will be presenting a proposed budget for the Commissions consideration that comprises an overall five percent increase in its annual operating and capital budgets, to include 30,000 square feet of additional classroom space and additional spending on projects that assure ADA compliance.

In the current Covid19 atmosphere, BCC will be holding Virtual Commencement Exercises this year, although at the time she spoke, there had been no definitive graduation date or time announced. Additionally, faculty and staff have been preparing for the transition from classroom presentation to online classes for next term; these measures should be completed by the day following Memorial Day.

The Board then held public hearings for action on a pair of Forgivable Loans that the county had provided to Bladen’s Bloomin’ in order to attract two industries to the county.

According to Chuck Heustess, Executive Director of the Bladen County Economic Development Commission and Bladen’s Bloomin’, the first loan, for $926,775.33, was to attract a company into Incubator #5; this manufacturer is remaining unnamed until it can be officially announced by Governor Cooper’s office. The second loan was for $201,949.10, and was instrumental in attracting Westwood Manufacturing into Incubator #6. Westwood manufactures robotics and plasma devices.

The public hearings were only to hear public comments and any input from interested parties on either of these two forgiveness requests; there were, however, no comments forthcoming. The actual votes on the forgiveness will be taken at the June 1st meeting.

Bryon Scott with the regional firm of Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Company presented the Fiscal Year 2018-2019 annual audit, beginning by offering an apology and explanation for its tardiness.

Mr. Scott had a slide presentation graphically illustrating Bladen County’s financial posture. He began his report with a Cash analysis: over the 5-year period 2015 through 2019, General Fund Cash has grown from $15 million to $25 million; Utility Fund and Solid Waste Fund combined Cash has grown from $2.6 million to $3.2 million.

A 5-year comparison of General Fund Revenues and Expenditures points out that, logically enough, Property Taxes are the county’s primary revenue source, growing in five years from $21 million to $24 million. On the Expenditure side, Public Safety, Human Services, and Education have the largest budget bite: In the five-year time frame that this audit looks at, Public Safety has risen from $9 million to $13 million; Human Services has declined from $13 million to $11 million; Education has risen from $8 million to $9 million.

Breaking down General Revenues by type, all taxes collected 65% of the county’s money, with sales and services bringing in another 13%. As no surprise, Public Safety, Human Services and Education together account for 74% of Bladen County’s General expenditures; Debt Service stands at only 4.0%.

Unrestricted Fund Balance – savings that are not dedicated for a specific use or otherwise restricted by the State – increased over the previous three years, from 34% of General Fund Expenditures to 39%, a full 5% better than the State average. On the other hand, the property tax collection rate of 96.6% has continued to lag the State average of 97.8%. The total assessed property value in the county has risen in five years from $2.73 billion to $2.8 billion.

Finance Director Lisa Coleman presented the 10-month Financial Dashboard, announcing that, as of April 30th, the County’s General Revenues stood at 81.2% received while Expenditures were at 80.6%, resulting in a 0.6% positive balance.

Ms. Coleman then informed the Board that Coronavirus Relief Fund Appropriation stood at $782,968, to be utilized for Covid19-related expenses only. It was mentioned that, if funds are available, perhaps the county can provide a measure of fiscal relief to the towns on a reimbursement basis.

The Commissioners then donned their Water District hats as the Bladen County Water District Board of Directors and adopted a resolution providing for the issuance of $4,997,000 Water System Revenue Bond Anticipation Notes; Anticipation Notes are issued “in anticipation” of the issuance of the actual bonds so that the Phase IV Water Construction Project can begin without delay. The ordinance approving that project’s construction was also adopted unanimously. Keeping themselves legal, they then exited that meeting and removed their Water hats.

Planning Director Greg Elkins provided the Commission with an update regarding the status of the County’s Census program. Currently, 41.3% of residents have completed and returned their Census forms. He informed the Commission that at this time in the process during the 2010 Census, some 46% of the county’s residents had been counted.

The planners are working on a concerted Fall blitz to get responses. The final step is Census Enumerators going from door to door in an attempt to count the final holdouts. All Enumerators will have a Census badge; they have all been trained in Covid19 procedures and they all have required PPEs.

Dr. Terri Duncan, Director of the Bladen Health & Human Services Department requested consideration of a Letter of Agreement with Bladen County Schools that would provide school nurses; this request was unanimously approved. She then requested that the Commission approve a Medical Service Agreement with the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, also approved unanimously.

Finally, Dr. Duncan assured the Board that HHS has been following Governor Cooper’s Executive Orders. There has been enhanced localized testing, especially of the at-risk population; in fact, there is much more testing now than a month ago. As of the 18th, there were 73 confirmed Covid19 cases in the county, resulting in two deaths. She reminded everyone of the “Three Ws” – “Wash your hands, Wait in lines at a 6-foot distance, and Wear a mask!”

Emergency Management Director Nathan Dowless informed the Board that he has gotten access to the superior N-95 masks for county employees who require them; and, nursing homes countywide are receiving Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs). He updated the Commission that 9,000 meals a day are being served at schools and feeding sites throughout the county.

Mr. Dowless then presented an update regarding a Stormwater Drainage Study within the county. He provided a summary history of this program, beginning with a small $45,000 study for Bladenboro that has now expanded to all the county’s towns. Requests for Quotes were sent out, and two RFQs came in; LKC Engineering of Aberdeen, NC, was selected for this project, and the County is now negotiating on a mutually agreeable project price.

The Commission had a slew of Advisory Board appointments: Bladenboro Fire District Committee (3), Dublin Fire District Committee (3), Keep Bladen Beautiful (1), Library Board (1), and the ETJ member of the White Lake Planning & Zoning Board of Adjustment (1). These were quickly dispensed with by unanimously reappointing all members to their respective Boards.

County Manager Greg Martin announced recognition for the following thirteen employees upon achieving the following years of service:

Employee Department Years of Service
Greta Jackson Library 5
Kelsey Edwards Library 5
Megan Thompson D S S 5
Shereese Becton D S S 5
Mya Cruz D S S 5
Debra Smith D S S 5
Amanda Sykes D S S 15
Matthew Long Sheriff’s Office 5
Christopher Brisson Sheriff’s Office 5
Donna Parnell Sheriff’s Office-Detention 10
Bruce Atkins Solid Waste 5
Heather Ellis E M S 10
Mary McKiver AAA-BARTS 20

Mr. Martin advised the Commission that budget workshops and two budget Public Hearings need to be scheduled. After some discussion among the Commissioners, it was determined that the Budget Schedule should be 1) a budget workshop at the Monday, June 1st regular meeting, 2) a called meeting on the following Monday, June 8th for the first public hearing, and 3) the second public hearing scheduled for the regular June 15th meeting.

He then requested approving correspondence in support of NC Department of Transportation Maintenance Office Staff; the letter would be presented to the county’s Legislative Delegation. This request was approved unanimously.

He advised the Board that the US Economic Development Agency did not fund a $3,200,000 economic development grant request, but that the paperwork was being resubmitted prior to the June 12th deadline. The County’s 20% portion of the $4,000,000 project is $800,000, which is being sought from the GoldenLeaf Foundation in the event the EDA portion is approved. There is no commitment to GoldenLeaf if EDA rejects the application again.

There is a request to amend the Commission’s Rules of Procedure to allow for the naming of roads, bridges, public buildings, and other such community assets not owned by the county. If approved now, a public hearing on the matter could be held at the June 1st meeting. The vote was unanimous to proceed.

In the Manager’s update of the White Oak Levee/Kelly Dike, he informed the Commissioners that Catlin Engineering has requested that a portion of the dike be allowed to be used as a walking trail. Mr. Martin stated that the Corps of Engineers is currently making test bores at the levee.

The Commissioners briefly discussed the possibility of reopening county offices beginning Monday, June 1st, but did not vote on the matter; the issue may be reconsidered when effected employees and all VFDs in the county have the proper PPE.  Earlier, however, they did talk about the possibility of the Board meeting in person at its regular June 1st meeting rather than telephonically, but again without the public in attendance.

There was no Miscellaneous Correspondence to come before the Commission, and the meeting was adjourned at 8:16p.m.

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