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Updated: Bladen County Commissioners Appoint Robby Priest To Board

By Blake Proctor

On Tuesday, September 8th, following a day’s delay due to the Labor Day holiday, the Bladen County regular Commission meeting was gaveled to order by Chairman Ray Britt. All Board members were present with the exception of Dr. Ophelia Munn-Goins, who attended by telephone.

Prior to approval of the eight-item Consent Agenda, which also contained the night’s Proposed Agenda, Chairman Britt advised the Commission that the vote on a request for a zoning change following the zoning public hearing would have to be removed due to a newly-adopted State statute prohibiting the practice of voting on a rezoning request at the same meeting as the public hearing. On a unanimous vote, the Consent Agenda was adopted with the amended agenda.

County Manager Greg Martin introduced Ms. Tyshell Jones, who has recently been hired as the new Human Resources Director; she thanked the Board and Mr. Martin for the opportunity of serving Bladen County.

On the advice and recommendation of the Bladen County Democratic Party, the Board unanimously appointed Mr. Robby Priest to the seat vacated by the untimely passing of his father, Commissioner Russell Priest, until the general election of November 3rd, when the post will be open. Mr. Priest will be sworn in at the October 5th meeting.

Chairman Britt opened a public hearing regarding the rezoning of property at 118 Davis Road in the Garland community. Planning Director Greg Elkins stated this half-acre property is currently zoned Rural Residential, and the petitioner was seeking to rezone to Business zoning for auto sales. Petitioner Jermaine Johnson had been to the Planning Board, and that board had unanimously recommended approval.

Ms. Carlene McIntyre of the Garland community, spoke in opposition to the request, stating that both the Davis Street and the surrounding neighborhood were rural residential in zoning and usage; she believed a business such as this would disrupt the rural character of the neighborhood.

Ms. Emily Coble, also from the Garland community, spoke in opposition as well, reiterating Ms. McIntyre’s views, and further stating that former Bladen County residents like her wanted to return to the County upon their retirement, and sought pastoral, bucolic qualities in the neighborhoods to which they wished to retire.

Mr. Johnson, the petitioner, stated that he had met all local and state requirements to operate an auto sales facility, that he planned on being a good neighbor, and that he would ensure the tranquility of the neighborhood.

Chairman Britt closed the public hearing. Pursuant to the new statute, a decision by the Commission will be made at the October 5th meeting.

Planning Director Elkins then provided an update on the status of the 2020 Census with the a caution that Bladen County had until the end of September to complete the count; unfortunately, the current population count for the County is still under 50%, with some places, such as White Lake, lower than 17% of their residents counted.

Mr. Elkins informed the Board that, to date, sixty percent of non-respondents to mailings have had enumerators go by their homes in attempts to make contact. A final push by the Council of Governments is in the works.

Chairman Britt cautioned that for every resident not counted during this Census, Bladen County and its towns stand to lose $1,600 per person each year in federal and state assistance and grants; this is $16,000 lost per capita by 2030 for each person uncounted now. It is very possible that up to 2,000 people may not be counted; that means the County and towns could lose as much as $32,000,000 in assistance and grant funds in total over the next decade.

Tax Administrator Renee Davis came before the Board, to state that the County had received a bid of $3,000 on delinquent taxes of $5,600, and asked if the Board would accept that amount. By unanimous vote, they declined the bid. A bid of $2,460 – the delinquency amount – was made on another property, which was accepted.

Ms. Davis then informed the Board that tax collections were down August 31st 2020-over-2019, while delinquency rates had been increasing; Commissioner Charles Ray Peterson suggested perhaps a workshop on this information would be helpful for the Board to better understand the information; there was, however, no further discussion.

*Commissioner Ashley Trivette explained that a large reason that more payments, especially from mortgagees, are not being received right now is that many lenders are allowing mortgage deferrals to clients, which helps them but hurts tax collections.

Finally, Ms. Davis explained that the department had a part-time position whose only job was to enhance collections and process delinquencies; although this employee is performing well, only part of what needs to be done can be completed.

She is therefore requesting that she be authorized to make the position full-time with a turn-key annual cost, *which includes benefits, of $45,000; she assured the Board that the efficiencies of the position would more than pay for itself. In closing, Ms. Dais said that she was aware that the position would need to be advertised.

Emergency Services Director Nathan Dowless came to the podium to present proposed policies for:
a) a County Mass Feeding Policy
b) the 2020 County Emergency Operations Plan, and
c) the Public Officials Emergency Management Program Plan

He briefly outlined the three interconnecting programs, stating that they will enhance and augment the current Emergency Operations Plan. By a single unanimous vote, the Commission adopted the three Plans together.

Dr. Terri Duncan, Director of Health and Human Services, provided a Covid19 update, stating that county-wide confirmed cases were 73, the number currently hospitalized at 8, and the number of deaths since February at 10. She ended her report by asserting that there should be a viable Covid19 vaccine available by March, 2021.

Kip McClary, General Services Director, provided the status of the Courthouse window replacement project by, first, requesting an additional $6,557 to replace additional panels and windows that weren’t originally on the project list; this request was unanimously approved. He demonstrated the effectiveness of the new windows by asking if the Chambers were not now much quieter and cooler, getting an affirmative response.

Chairman Britt asked for and received a motion to go into session as the Bladen County Water District Board of Directors.

Mr. McClary provided a report on the status of the Phase IV Water District Expansion Project by stating:
a) 80% of the construction for the water mains has been completed;
b) 10 of the 11 creek crossings have been completed;
c) the new production well has been completed, with a higher yield that projected;
d) 900 water meters have been replaced to date;
e) Southern Software is providing interfaces with the County’s current system for a seamless transition.

Mr. McClary then requested consideration for the expenditure of $106,129 for a new 40’ by 60’ storage facility to house materials and equipment which will be needed with this expansion. Again this request was unanimously approved.

The Board then exited the session as the County Water District.

Department Reports out of the way, The Board voted unanimously to appoint Kenneth Cain to the Tobermory Fire Department Firefighters Relief Fund Advisory Board; they also announced that six people will be named next month to Keep Bladen Beautiful, and one other to the Voluntary Agricultural Districts Committee.

County Manager provided his monthly Calendar Review for the remainder of September and for October. He then asked for a Courthouse Lawn Use request, which was unanimously granted. Finally, he requested the Board’s consideration to approve a Community Development Block Grant-Covid (CDBG-CV) application, which was also quickly approved.

The Commission took a ten-minute break at 8:27 p.m. prior to entering closed session to discuss economic development; they returned to open session and immediately adjourned at 8:56 p.m., having taken no action.

*We added Commissioner Ashley Trivette’s name to the explanation to more clearly state who was explaining the reason.

*We added, “which includes benefits” to clarify what the amount stated covered.

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