COVID-19 vaccine will be available this week to all child care center and pre-K to 12th-grade personnel in Wilkes County who indicated they want it, said Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard.
Willard said this is planned in three drive-through vaccination clinics, one apiece on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. “Our goal is to vaccinate all teachers and staff (in Wilkes) who are interested this week if possible,” she said.
Moderna vaccine for 650 first doses is designated for these clinics, which Willard said is based on 581 employees of the Wilkes County Schools, 31 from local private schools and 22 from local childcare centers indicating they wish to be vaccinated.
People in these employment categories, regardless of age, become eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations statewide Wednesday as part of group three in the eligibility process. Certain other categories of frontline workers in group three become eligible March 10.
Wednesday’s clinic is for the newly-eligible people with workplaces in two of the four Wilkes school districts. Thursday’s clinic is for another of the districts and Friday’s is for the fourth district. The three clinics, at undisclosed locations, are only for childcare center and pre-K to 12th-grade personnel in Wilkes. As such, they’re called “closed pod” clinics.
Willard said the health department is working with local public and private school and childcare officials to provide the clinics.
She said Moderna vaccine for the closed pod clinics is part of a shipment the health department received Monday, which was enough for 2,400 first doses.
Half of the first dose vaccine received Monday is for 1,200 people who lost appointments when a Feb. 18 clinic at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge was canceled due to icy conditions elsewhere, delaying vaccine shipments and creating uncertain travel conditions locally.
Willard said these 1,200, mostly people 65 and older, have top priority for vaccinations at a first dose, drive-through clinic at River’s Edge Thursday. The health department is contacting them to schedule makeup appointments then.
Willard said the other half of the Moderna vaccine received Monday for first doses is what the health department expected for Thursday’s clinic.
Starting with the clinic Thursday at Rivers Edge, appointments at Wilkes Health Department first dose clinics can be made online by going to www.wilkeshealth.com. They can also still be made by calling 336-990-9950. A limited number of first dose appointments will be available online initially, stated an announcement on the health department website. People wanting to schedule appointments online must have active email addresses.
The department is accepting appointments for 300 second doses of Moderna at a drive-through clinic at River’s Edge Friday for people who received first doses on or before Jan. 29. Second dose appointments could already be made at www.wilkeshealth.com, as well as by calling 336-990-9950.
Appointments for first dose vaccinations are available on a more limited basis at health department evening clinics by calling 336-651-7450.
People eligible for vaccination starting Wednesday include most of the 1,600 employees of the Wilkes County Schools, as well as employees in similar positions at private schools and Bridges Charter School in State Road. They include about 225 staff of Head Start and other child care centers, pre-kindergarten programs, family child care homes, on-site consultants, therapists and related personnel, said Kirstin Roberts, child care health consultant with Wilkes Community Partnership for Children.
A defining feature of those eligible for vaccination in group three is having to be in-person at place of work, including those who anticipate returning to this. It doesn’t include homeschool or community college teachers and other staff.
Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said eligible employees of each school system statewide include but aren’t limited to teachers, teacher assistants, student and substitute teachers, special education teachers and therapists, school and district administrators, school administrative staff, school transportation drivers, food service workers, custodial and maintenance staff, media and information technology specialists, school safety personnel, librarians, instructional support staff and school support staff such as guidance counselors, social workers and speech language pathologists. School nurses were part of the group eligible for vaccination. Byrd said there are 598 teachers in the Wilkes schools.
“Staff members (of the Wilkes schools) were asked to complete paperwork if they wanted the vaccine, and at this time roughly 44% have signed up. We anticipate that number increasing as they learn more specifics about vaccination clinics and the vaccines themselves,” said Byrd on Feb. 18.
He added, “We did not survey staff to see who would or would not get vaccinated and have only gathered data concerning those who are actually signing up.”
In addition, he said, “Employees over age 65 have already had (vaccination) clinics held for them, so many of them aren’t included” in the percentage who signed up to be vaccinated.
“At this time, we have not offered incentives” for being vaccinated, Byrd added.
“We can’t say enough about the efforts of the Wilkes County Health Department in trying to ensure our staff receive vaccines as soon as possible, Rachel Willard, Lindsey Roberts (community health services director) and their entire staff have continued to be tremendous assets to the students and staff of Wilkes County Schools,” said Byrd.
In addition to vaccinating teachers and other staff, wearing masks and other practices, discussion on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools nationwide has focused on the importance of having well ventilated buildings. This includes the condition of school HVAC systems.
“In terms of good ventilation systems helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I do feel that our success with keeping schools open during the pandemic has shown that we are fortunate in this area,” said Byrd.
He credited Bergie Speaks, director of maintenance for the Wilkes schools, with consistently looking for ways to improve ventilation. “He is currently researching some products that can make these systems even stronger.”
A 900-foot-long expansion of the Yadkin River Greenway at West Park Medical Complex in North Wilkesboro is underway.
The greenway is being extended along the Yadkin River from the current terminus between Brushy Mountain Dental and the Wilkes Express YMCA and the Ruby Pardue Blackburn Adult Day Care.
Greenway Executive Director R.G. Absher said the extension will provide direct access to the greenway for clients of the Ruby Pardue Blackburn Adult Day Care.
Absher said that with completion of this latest project, the different sections of the Yadkin River Greenway will add up to about 9.5 miles.
He said North Wilkesboro-based Brinegar Grading started work earlier this winter and should be finished in the spring on the new section.
Gravel has been placed on most of the new section and will be followed by a layer of asphalt.
Absher said work was funded with $25,000 from The Health Foundation, $25,000 from the National Park Foundation and up to $25,000 from the Yadkin River Greenway Council. Also, $1,500 was received from McNeill Chevrolet Buick in Wilkesboro.
From the Ruby Pardue Blackburn Adult Day Care, said Absher, the plan is to eventually take the greenway a short distance farther upstream before eventually crossing to the other side of the Yadkin River via a pedestrian bridge and continue upstream before connecting with an existing section near Moravian Creek.
The close proximity of U.S. 421 Business and buildings along the road on the north side of the river at that point make it hard to build the greenway there.
Absher said another short section of the Yadkin River Greenway will soon be built around Memorial Park by the Town of North Wilkesboro and the Wilkes Parks and Recreation Department.
He said the Town of Wilkesboro’s recent purchase of the Furchess property along Cub Creek was good news for greenway supporters because the town plans to build a section of trail connecting the Wilkesboro’s Cub Creek Park to where a section of the greenway ends at the mouth of Cub Creek.
In a related matter, Absher said Dr. Bill Blackley and others with the Yadkin Valley Trails Association are making progress toward securing easements for a 20-mile section of the Overmountain Victory Trail in the Yadkin River corridor between Elkin and North Wilkesboro.
A study has already been conducted to identify trail corridor.
Yadkin Valley Trails Association is also still working to complete a section of the Mountains to the Sea Trail from Elkin to Stone Mountain State Park, with different segments for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Absher noted that member of the Stone Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited were near the greenway Saturday cleaning up trash from the Reddies River.
The section of the Reddies along the greenway is designated a delayed harvest trout stream by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Ediitor’s Note: County commissioners discuss occupancy tax again. Story on page B5.
The Wilkesboro Town Council on Monday unanimously agreed to raise the town’s occupancy tax on places of lodging from 3% to 6%.
The council also unanimously adopted a resolution that supports the Wilkes County government’s establishment of a 6% occupancy tax.
During the specially-called meeting on Zoom, the council adopted Resolution 2021-03, which “requests on behalf of and with support from the Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority (TDA) that the N.C. General Assembly raise the (town’s) occupancy tax to 6%.”
The Town of Wilkesboro has been the only governmental jurisdiction in Wilkes with an occupancy tax since 2001. Its seven-member TDA board, appointed by the town council, determines how revenue from the town’s 3% occupancy tax is spent.
Wilkesboro’s 3% occupancy tax typically raises over $150,000 per year.
The TDA, under the direction of Thomas Salley, functions as a component unit of town government like the Wilkesboro ABC Board.
On Monday, Salley called the occupancy tax increase “the best way to move forward with this, and if the county adopts its occupancy tax I’ll be more than happy to cooperate with them fully.”
In a Feb. 18 letter to Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland, Salley said the TDA board met on Feb. 16 and voted to request that the council adopt both resolutions in support of the occupancy taxes.
Daniel Isom, TDA chairman, said Monday, “Regardless of what happens outside of what Wilkesboro chooses to do, there’s significant benefits down the road for the TDA to increase the occupancy tax. Wilkesboro should also maintain a heavy presence in determining how those funds are spent.”
Resolution 2021-04 calls for the Wilkes County commissioners to enact a 6% occupancy tax and for the TDA to “join forces with Wilkes County, to allow one Tourism Development Authority to operate in a manner to administrate both entities.”
The resolution also states that the TDA would “keep separate financial records for each tax while combining efforts to promote tourism opportunities and activities in Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.”
At their Feb. 16 meeting, the county commissioners agreed by consensus to decide at their next regular meeting on March 2 whether to schedule a public hearing for receiving public comment on establishing an occupancy tax.
Wilkes is one of 15 counties in the state that doesn’t impose such an occupancy tax.
The Wilkes County commissioners secured passage of state legislation allowing them to collect a tax on gross receipts from lodging provided by motels, rental cabins, Airbnbs and other short-term rentals, but a few months later tabled the matter. They have since discussed the matter several times but have taken no action.
North Wilkesboro Commissioner Andrew Palmer said during the Monday meeting that he has encouraged the county commissioners to approve the occupancy tax.
“I applaud Wilkesboro for leading the charge on occupancy tax,” said Palmer. “Those extra dollars are good for everyone. I’ve talked to the county commissioners and it’s important that the county also does this so we’re not at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring communities.”
After the resolutions were approved, Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said, “I will take the next step with the county manager (John Yates) and see where this takes us.”
Noland said he would inform Rep. Jeffrey Elmore and Sen. Deanna Ballard of the Wilkesboro appeal for the increase in occupancy tax and request they begin the process of creating a local bill that would go before the legislature.
In 2016, Wilkes Planning Director Eddie Barnes estimated that a 6% occupancy tax on areas outside the towns in Wilkes would generate $60,000 to $80,000 annually.
Most county and town governments in North Carolina have either a 3% or a 6% occupancy tax and 6% is by far more common.
Surry and Watauga counties administer a 6% occupancy tax on areas outside of incorporated areas of the counties. The Surry towns of Mount Airy, Elkin, Pilot Mountain and Dobson also each have a 6% occupancy tax.
Caldwell County has a 3% occupancy tax on unincorporated areas of the county.
The Wilkes County commissioners agreed by consensus to advise Ronda elected officials as they decide the future of the town’s water system.
The issue is whether needed improvements are made to the Ronda water system infrastructure, the system is merged into Elkin’s water system or some other option is pursued.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners, said during his board’s Feb. 16 meeting that he received a call that day on behalf of the interests of Ronda’s 350 water customers.
Settle said in an interview that the call was from Kevin Reece, a newly-elected Ronda commissioner.
“They (Ronda officials) would like to make sure these interests “are looked after if they do contract with, say, the Town of Elkin,” said Settle during the meeting.
They want county government’s input, possibly from County Manager John Yates and County Attorney Tony Triplett, he said.
“This is something big for these citizens in that town. We’re talking about a small, small town that we could possibly help in some way. I don’t think it would cost too much to have Tony look at the contracts and what is proposed from the Town of Elkin or whatever they decide to do.”
Settle noted that a substantial portion of Ronda’s water customers, including East Wilkes middle and high schools, are outside the town limits. He asked for a response from other commissioners.
Commissioner David Gambill said Triplett could end up in a predicament if he advised Ronda. Later in the meeting, Gambill said he supported having county officials share input with Ronda officials.
Triplett said he didn’t foresee representing Ronda in a legal sense, but added that he has no familiarity with contract documents in the matter.
He said he had no problem with county officials assisting Ronda while not stepping beyond their roles of county board chairman, county attorney etc. Triplett said he would likely review paperwork under consideration and meet with a Ronda representative and Settle. “It may even boil down to recommending what direction they go in,” said Triplett.
Commissioner Keith Elmore said he didn’t mind Yates and Triplett helping Ronda “but they do have a mayor, a board and a governance down there that is responsible for doing all these things. But, I’m all for helping if we can help them.”
Settle said Ronda is limited financially.
He also said he told Reece that county government isn’t in the water business, but that he believed the commissioners would support assisting them.
“You probably wouldn’t be having this discussion if it involved a larger municipality because they probably would have an attorney,” added Settle.
Triplett said Lisa Valdez of Statesville was Ronda’s attorney “a year or two ago” when they talked. In June 2019, the Ronda commissioners voted to employ Valdez as town attorney and approved a resolution in support of doing a study to determine the best way to address Ronda’s water needs.
Reece said in an interview that in a recent work session, the Ronda commissioners agreed to seek proposals for ongoing legal services from local attorneys. “We don’t have money for a lot of legal advice.”
He said approving an Elkin take-over of the Ronda water system would free Ronda resources to address other needs and opportunities. He said that if this occurred, Elkin should charge customers in Ronda the same water rates as customers in Elkin.
Reece said he recently talked to Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland about the possibility of a Wilkesboro waterline to the Northwest Visitor Center on U.S. 421 East being extended to Ronda.
He said Ronda and Jonesville officials also discussed possibly connecting Ronda and Jonesville waterlines on Swan Creek Road.
Reece also said he learned in a meeting with Ron Niland, the town’s management consultant, that the town board needed to decide soon whether to upgrade the Ronda water system, approve a merger with Elkin or pursue another option.
Niland is a former Mount Airy city manager and was elected a Mount Airy commissioner in 2019.
In February 2020, Ronda and Elkin were jointly awarded a $50,000 state Community Development Block Grant to fund a study on merging Ronda’s water system with Elkin’s water system. Niland applied for the grant a year earlier.
Niland said last week that results of the study, conducted by Hickory-based McGill Associates P.A., are expected soon and hopefully will be available for discussion in a Ronda board retreat in April.
He said the alternative to becoming part of the Elkin water system is spending as much as $500,000 on refurbishing Ronda’s two water storage tanks and water pumps and possibly drilling two new wells to maintain adequate service and meet state water quality standards. Neither water tank has been repainted since installed and officials said they at least need a new special coating inside and out.
Niland said earlier that Ronda’s current well, which feeds the town’s standpipe tank (shaped like a vertical pipe) on Cemetery Street, no longer produced enough water. This tank, installed in 1993, serves customers within town limits.
Water bought from Elkin arrives via a 12-inch waterline along N.C. 268 to fill a Ronda water tank installed in 2003 near East Wilkes Middle School. After the county commissioners applied for grants to fund the 12-inch line, the approved funding passed through county government to Ronda in 2014. This line connected with an existing line along roads north of N.C. 268 East to create a loop.
The tank near the middle school serves most Ronda customers outside town limits, including East Wilkes High, the town’s biggest water customer during the school year.