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Decision on animal control officers carrying handguns delayed
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A draft policy revision allowing Wilkes County animal control officers to have concealed handguns while on duty was tabled for more discussion during the March 2 county commissioners meeting.

Wilkes Animal Control Director Steve Rhoades asked that a county animal control firearms policy enacted in 1999 be amended to allow this for animal control officers with state-issued concealed carry permits.

Rhoades said one county animal control officer has a concealed carry permit and is the only one who currently wants to carry a concealed handgun while on duty.

Commission Chairman Eddie Settle said he was shocked that only one has a concealed carry permit. Settle said he wouldn’t be an animal control officer if he couldn’t carry a handgun.

Commissioner Keith Elmore asked if animal control officers now have rifles.

Rhoades said they all have 10/22 rifles behind the seats of their vehicles. “They only get those out when needed for injured animals and things like that. It takes you just a minute to get those out if needed.”

Commissioner David Gambill said animal control officers should have more training than the eight hours required for a concealed carry permit, but also said he didn’t oppose letting them carry concealed handguns.

An animal control officers with a concealed handgun isn’t the same thing as ordinary concealed carry, said Gambill, a deputy with the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office and earlier with the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office.

Gambill said he wants more time to study the matter and discuss it with County Attorney Tony Triplett and Settle. “I think there are some options out there available that might be a little better.”

He said several counties require that animal control officers take firearms classes each year and also qualify annually with the weapons, similar to law enforcement. “I would just feel better for liability purposes.”

Settle said he is 100% for letting animal control officers with concealed carry permits carry concealed handguns. He asked how many other North Carolina counties allow this and neither Triplett nor Rhoades knew.

The policy for Wilkes animal control officers now says, “The carrying of concealed weapons is not permitted.

Triplett revised it in the draft to say, “is not permitted unless permitted by law.” He said that if this is approved, an animal control officer will only need a concealed carry permit to have a concealed handgun while on duty.

“There may be other requirements you as a board would like to see in place and I think that would be perfectly fine,” said Triplett. The board could have Rhoades research what other counties do in this regard, he added.

Gambill continued, “I’m just saying you’re dealing with somebody’s animal… I’m going to call it what it is. If you pull your concealed out and have to take care of business… I think there’s a better avenue to carrying. Maybe even open” rather than concealed.

Settle said animal control officers must be certified law enforcement officers to carry handguns in the open, which he said is the case in Surry County. This requires having basic law enforcement training (BLET).

Settle suggested requiring that Wilkes animal control officers be BLET-certified and said this likely would result in them getting more pay.

Elmore asked how much liability the county would face if Wilkes animal control officers carried concealed handguns.

Triplett said it’s hard to predict without prior cases in North Carolina. “I can’t tell you there wouldn’t be liability, but the chances are pretty good if a person has a concealed carry permit and they abide by that permit that we’re protected pretty good.”

Settle said, “You don’t pull that weapon unless your life is in danger…. That’s one of the first things they teach you when you get a concealed carry. You don’t just jerk it out to show the thing.”

Settle said it’s getting increasingly dangerous. “I would certainly hate for something to happen to one of them (Wilkes animal control officer) and me knowing he might have wanted to have” a concealed handgun.

Triplett said employees in all other Wilkes County department can carry concealed handguns while on the job when Gambill asked how the matter is handled elsewhere in county government

Settle said some employees in every other county government department carry concealed handguns while on duty.

Gambill said delaying action would allow time to see what other county animal control agencies do if their animal control officers don’t have BLET. He said this would better address liability.

Settle said liability concerns are covered and Triplett concurred.

Well, I’m good to approve it if you’re comfortable,” said Gambill to Triplett. “But I would like to revisit this.”

Elmore then stated, “I would hate for animal control to go to somebody’s house for a dog and end up killing that homeowner…. That would be a big concern for me. Generally, you’re going to be on the other man’s property and then he’s protecting his property.”

He added, “If I go to a man’s house and I’m going to take his dog and he pulls a gun on me, if I don’t have a gun, I’m going to retreat. If I have a gun I might pull it out and we’ll have a gun fight. A gun will get you killed at the same time.”

Settle said he understood Elmore’s point and Elmore said the same of Settle’s stance. Settle said he also supported Gambill’s interest in safety.

Rhoades then said Wilkes animal control officers “are out there at 2 or 3 in the morning and don’t know what kind of environment they’ll be stepping into.”

Triplett said the matter could be brought before the animal control committee, of which Gambill is a member.

Gambill said he believed he, Settle and Triplett could work it out before the next board meeting on March 16 if they met. Rhoades said there was no hurry when Settle asked for his input.

Settle said the three will meet and asked Elmore to make a motion to table action that night. Elmore declined to do that and the commissioners laughed when until Gambill made the motion to table the matter until the next meeting so they can meet.

There was more uncertainty and laughter when no one seconded and Settle said the motion might die for lack of a second. Elmore then seconded it and all five commissioners, which also included commissioners Brian Minton and Casey Joe Johnson, all voted for tabling action on county animal control officers carrying concealed handguns.

Compatibility of 2 town water systems top NW priority
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Ensuring North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro are capable of supplying each other with water is North Wilkesboro’s top priority in fiscal 2021-22.

It topped the list of about a dozen goals identified by North Wilkesboro commissioners during their annual retreat Friday at the Stone Center.

The retreat was designed to provide guidance for developing a budget for the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper called the compatibility goal “reasonably achievable” as part of a long-term objective of ensuring the town has an adequate and safe water supply.

A decades-long joint effort by North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro to make W. Kerr Scott Reservoir their water supply, based primarily on North Wilkesboro needing a more reliable source, was officially dropped in 2019. Cost was the big issue despite the state okaying a 30-year, $30 million loan with zero interest for the project.

North Wilkesboro officials have continued seeking alternatives to the town’s Reddies River Reservoir as a water source due to costs of removing sediments from this water and because it doesn’t meet needs during severe droughts. It also allows little capacity for growth.

After giving up efforts with W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, North Wilkesboro officials pursued building an intake on the Yadkin River. Wilkesboro officials were already well along with plans to upgrade their existing water intake on the Yadkin and water treatment plant.

North Wilkesboro was expected to get a low interest loan from the state for a Yadkin intake, but put this on hold in late 2019 when Wilkesboro and county elected officials became reluctant to approve development density limits on thousands of acres within their jurisdictions to protect the proposed new intake’s watershed. These limits were required before the new intake could be built.

Hooper said then that other options included making it possible for North Wilkesboro to buy part of its treated water from Wilkesboro during droughts while still using water from the Reddies and installing an ActiFlo pre-treatment system to remove sediments. He said North Wilkesboro also might buy all of its treated water from Wilkesboro year-round.

The North Wilkesboro board moved ahead with efforts to install an ActiFlo system and other water treatment plant upgrades. Hooper said state approval of a preliminary engineering report on this work is expected by May 1, followed by putting it out for bids. He said it will increase the plant’s treatment capacity from 4.32 million gallons per day now to 6 MGD.

Although a water line connection between the two towns was repaired several months ago, Hooper said Friday, “we’ve got to make sure that if we are drawing water from Wilkesboro, that we’re not destroying our own system.”

He was referring to differing treatment systems in each town for preventing corrosion of their respective water lines and concern that this could result in North Wilkesboro’s water lines being damaged by Wilkesboro’s water.

Hooper suggested addressing the differing treatment systems and related matters in a memorandum of understanding that would be worked out between the two towns over the next few months. Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said in an interview that he and Hooper discussed this.

Hooper said, “We would probably set the goals we both want to achieve rather than a treatment solution because that’s where we differ now…. Then, we go to the state for grant money for a study to determine which treatment method is the best.”

He said an engineer acting as a neutral third party would be hired to study the matter and recommend which treatment solution is best. He said the engineer’s recommendation could result in one town changing its treatment or both changing what they do.

Hooper agreed when North Wilkesboro Commissioner Andrew Palmer said officials of the towns should decide in advance what to do if one of the two decides to not go along with the engineer’s recommendation.

Hooper said the MOU would stipulate conditions under which the two towns would exchange water and the water rate they would charge. He said the MOU would show the state that the two towns are able to work together “because they still think we hate each other,” referring to friction over the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir intake effort.

“We’ll probably pick up the intake (effort) again in the years to come, but if we find the intake is never going to happen for whatever reason, we’ll have a connection” between the two towns, said Hooper.

Other top priorities

After the water supply issue, the North Wilkesboro board’s top priorities for fiscal 2021-22 are, in order, providing better facilities for the North Wilkesboro police and fire departments, slowing traffic on certain streets, paving/parking/storm water issues and town beautification.

Hooper said renovating the current police station on Main Street and remaining there is being considered, as well as moving to a new location. One site on Second Street and another on Finley Avenue the town bought were already rejected.

Rob Thornburg, interim police chief, said in an interview Friday that the current police station on Main Street is too chopped up but that could be addressed. Thornburg said the building’s overall footprint is large enough.

North Wilkesboro Fire Chief Jimmy Martin said the North Wilkesboro Fire Station is severely undersized and lacking in parking.

Other priorities identified by commissioners during the retreat, in no particular order, were housing, streetscapes, park improvements, marketing the town, town festivals/other events, supporting public schools in town and completing a mural at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace.

They were named Friday morning and ranked that afternoon when retreat facilitator, Dr. Jim Street of Boone, had commissioners come up individually and write a number from one to 12 beside each where they were listed on a white board. One was the top choice and 12 the lowest.

Street said there is support among commissioners for priorities that didn’t make the top five and will likely get attention in the coming fiscal year.

Among parking, paving and storm water, Hooper asked commissioners which were most important. Storm water flooding appeared to raise the most concern.

Commissioner Angela Day said storm water ranks ahead of the others three because of the destruction it has caused in North Wilkesboro.

Palmer agreed about the importance of remedying storm water problems, but added that the board should wait and see what is accomplished by the town’s recent $18,000 expenditure on work to reduce storm water damage on 10th Street.

Commissioner Michael Parsons said paving and storm water improvements are potentially big ticket items but still need to be addressed in some way in the 2021-22 budget.

He said the town needs to also address storm water flooding at the bottom of Second Street Hill, even though it’s the responsibility of the N.C. Department of Transportation. Second Street is state-maintained as part of N.C. 18 and N.C. 268.

“I’m disappointed that on a state level we couldn’t get help with that issue,” said Day.

Commissioner Debbie Ferguson said it’s critical to let Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro and Sen. Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock know about the storm water problems in North Wilkesboro.

“We need help with storm water management and much of it is on DOT right of way,” she said. “I don’t think we can get help without going to Jeffrey and Deanna.”

Ferguson said owners of businesses along Wilkesboro Avenue said town employees helped a lot by removing debris that could block storm drains.

Hooper suggested consideration of no longer putting leaves on street curbs for collection by the town because heavy rain can wash them into storm drains, causing blockage. He said leaves might be partly the cause of a sinkhole in front of the House of Vacuums on Wilkesboro Avenue.

Parsons said parking has been a problem in downtown North Wilkesboro for many years and likely always will be. “It’s just what it is.” Day said parking problems shouldn’t be ignored.

Hooper said town staff is working on ways to address parking problems.

The issues include shoppers being discouraged by people parking their vehicles near where they work downtown for long periods.

Ferguson also said, “We really haven’t paved anything in a good long while and that’s as much our job as picking up garbage.”

Hooper said Ninth Street between Main and D streets is high on the list of paving priorities.

Ferguson said the board has made progress restoring North Wilkesboro’s financial stability and it should be possible to accomplish more now.

Updated business incentives policy is planned

A draft updated economic development incentives policy for new and existing businesses in Wilkes County was presented to the North Wilkesboro commissioners on March 2.

The policy was drafted by the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. (EDC) and applies to new and existing businesses opening in the towns of North Wilkesboro, Wilkesboro or elsewhere in Wilkes.

LeeAnn Nixon, EDC president, made the presentation to the North Wilkesboro commissioners. She said the EDC hired Crystal Morphis, an economic development consultant, to update the county’s economic development investment policy, which was last updated in 2001.

Morphis recently met with staff members of the two towns, the county and the EDC before advising the updates to the policy, which has not yet been formally discussed by the Wilkes County commissioners or the Wilkesboro Town Council.

The policy, if jointly adopted by the towns and county, would reward eligible businesses by calculating an incentive based on 80% of their increase in ad valorem tax for five, six or seven years, based on a points system that factors in how many jobs were created, the amount of money invested and the wages offered by the business.

Existing or new businesses in Wilkes that open a headquarters facility, reuse a vacant building or formal industrial site, are outdoor economy-based, or occupy a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified building would receive bonus points.

A different policy is being recommended for new or existing smaller businesses that create at least five jobs, invest at least $250,000 in taxable improvements and pay at least the average county wage as defined by the job’s North American Industry Classification System code. These businesses will be eligible for a $5,000 cash payment after they complete the investment and make their first tax payment.

The town would have to budget for the $5,000 cash incentives, said Town Manager Wilson Hooper. “We hope to have such a program in place by the start of the next fiscal year (July 1),” he said.

Commissioner Debbie Ferguson said, “I’m particularly glad to see the two towns and the county and working together and offering in developing this program. I think it will be good for all of us working off the same page and less confusing for businesses who are already here or who may be coming into the community.”

Currently, businesses in Wilkes can use incentive grants for purposes that include site acquisition, site preparation, internal infrastructure and job training. The proposed update includes language to include building uplift or renovation and machinery and equipment purchases for existing businesses, practices that are already unofficially incentivized.

The updated proposed policy would also lower the investment requirement of existing businesses from $800,000 to $750,000, to be eligible for tax incentives.

Board consensus was for town staff to move forward with the continued planning of the new incentives policy, with formal board approval coming at a later date.

Other matters

Also on Tuesday, the board:

• granted permission to Synergy Recovery at 118 Peace Street to erect an off-premises sign at the corner of Peace Street and Old U.S. 421. The sign on the highway right-of-way will display the Synergy Recovery name and logo and that of the Shirley B. Randleman Center; and

• approved a $10 filing fee for the 2021 municipal elections. The commissioner seats of Debbie Ferguson and Angela Day and the mayoral seat of Robert Johnson are up for election this year.

Monthly public vaccine clinics planned at 4 middle schools
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Plans for drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinics at the four Wilkes County middle schools for all eligible people were announced Tuesday by Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard.

Willard said current plans are to have them on the third Saturday of each month at East Wilkes, West Wilkes, Central Wilkes and North Wilkes middle schools, starting March 20. She said the amount of COVID-19 vaccination allocated to the Wilkes Health Department could impact these plans.

Willard said vaccination clinics are being held at the four middle schools to help make it easier for all Wilkes residents to get vaccinated. Times for these clinics will be announced soon.

She said enough Pfizer vaccine was allocated for 1,170 doses to be administered at Tyson facilities in four North Carolina locations, including Wilkesboro, on Friday and Saturday. The other three are Claremont, Monroe and Sanford.

Matrix Medical staff will vaccinate Tyson employees at the company’s chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro. This will be the third COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Wilkesboro complex, with vaccine provided by the Wilkes Health Department.

Willard said the health department will also provide vaccine for a clinic at InterFlex on N.C. 268 West in Wilkesboro on March 16. She said about 50 employee vaccinations are expected there. Staff of Target Care, an occupational health agency similar to Matrix Medical at Tyson, will administer the vaccine.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 case numbers are still gradually dropping in Wilkes and most other counties in North Carolina.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services listed Wilkes with 254 new cases per 100,000 people the last two weeks and 6,079 cases since the pandemic started. Cases per 100,000 the prior two weeks in counties adjoining Wilkes ranged from 224 in Alleghany to 347 in Watauga.

DHHS listed Wilkes with four confirmed COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, after earlier showing Wilkes with five such deaths.

DHHS said more categories of people of people eligible for vaccination will be added March 24. They’re all in Group 4 and include people with high-risk medical conditions, those experiencing homelessness, and incarcerated people not already vaccinated

North Carolina plans to move to other essential workers and other people in close group living settings after that. “Some vaccine providers may not be ready to open to Group 4 on this date if they are still experiencing high demand for vaccines in Groups 1 through 3,” DHHS stated.

Got to https://findmygroup.nc.gov/ for assistance in determining vaccine eligibility.

Eight categories of “frontline essential workers,” regardless of age, became eligible for vaccination statewide on March 3. They are all in Group 3.

These include people employed in the food and agriculture industry (restaurants, meat packing, food processing and food distribution and others); college and university instructors and support staff; government and community services (including clergy); public health and social work; public safety; transportation; production of medical supplies and goods needed for food supply chains; and in stores selling groceries and medicine.

People in all eight groups must be present in-person at their place of work to be eligible for vaccination. Then same is true for child care center and pre-K to 12th-grade teachers and related personnel, who became eligible statewide on Feb. 24.

Medical personnel with potential direct exposure to COVID-19 and staff and residents of long-term residential care facilities also are eligible.