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Fees, debt among county budget topics
  • Updated

The Wilkes County commissioners discussed fees, total county debt, salaries, allocations to non-profits and certain other aspects of the proposed 2023-24 budget during a 1 ½-hour work session Tuesday afternoon.

No consensus was reached, but Board Chairman Keith Elmore said the commissioners will look more closely at fee increases requested by some department heads in a future budget work session. The commissioners expect to approve the new budget before fiscal 2023-24 starts on Jul1.

Elmore said that as he looked through funding requests from county department heads, he noticed numerous proposed fee increases. These are in the planning, environmental health, building inspections and solid waste departments. This is the second or more year in a row these fee increases have been requested.

Elmore said some of the proposed fee hikes are needed, including the county landfill tipping (dumping) fee. This is the only fee increase included in the draft budget presented by County Manager John Yates on May 1.

Yates recommended raising the tipping fee by $2 to $45 per ton in the draft budget. He said Surry County’s fee is $49 a ton.

He said the higher tipping fee may be needed to increase revenue for hiring full-time employees for the three manned convenience centers. “We are currently having a hard time hiring and retaining part-time employees” for the three manned county convenience centers, said Yates.

Elmore said higher building inspections fees can create burdens for people trying to build homes.

A few of the many inspection fee increases requested are minimum electrical and minimum plumbing fees, both $45 now and $65 proposed; and camper service fee, $75 now and $100 proposed.

A few of the environmental health fee increases requested are new well with one water sample test, $330 now and $350 proposed; testing a second water sample, $75 now and $150 proposed; testing a wastewater system, $100 now and $125 proposed.

A permit for abandoning or repairing a well is free now but requiring $125 for either of these is proposed.

The proposed new fees for septic system permits include $300-$600 for systems with up to 480 gallons per day (one to four bedrooms); $750-$1,050 for systems with 600-840 gallons per day; $1,126-$3,700 for systems with 901-3,000 gallons per day (pump systems). These fees are based on $1.25 per gallon per day.

The current septic system permit fee schedule is $240 for a one- to two-bedroom home; $360 for a three-bedroom home; $480 for a four-bedroom home; and $600 for a five-bedroom home.

It was pointed out in the work session that Wilkes County government has about $36 million in debt, which is considerably less than most area counties.Elmore said it was considerably more at one time.

The $36 million in debt is from constructing the Wilkes County Jail and a new main base for Wilkes Emergency Medical Services. It also is from additions and renovations to the Wilkes high schools.

Chris Alexander with First Horizon National Bank, who advises the commissioners on certain financial matters, said Surry County borrowed about $90 million this year and already had $38 million in debt.

He said Watauga County has well over $100 million in debt from school construction. Ashe County is in the process of building a school that will cost about $26 million, which will give that county about $65 million in debt. Iredell County has about $270 million in debt.

Commissioner Bill Sexton asked why county government provides funds for rural community centers.

Elmore said the county has done this for over 20 years and the amounts allocated were reduced a few years ago. He said the rationale for these appropriations is that it is less costly than county government providing the recreational and other services provided by these community organizations.

County Finance Director Chris Huffman said over half of the non-profit organizations that receive county funds have turned in required paperwork showing they are legitimate non-profit entities. He said others are in the process of doing this.

It was reiterated in the meeting that the new budget will include a 7% across the board increase in salaries. There was brief discussion about possibly doing a salary study.

All-Star Week draws ardent fans
  • Updated

Troy Hope of Wenatchee, Wash., said Monday that nothing represents the roots of NASCAR better than the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“This is the sport — right here,” said Hope, from a part of central Washington with a strong racing heritage. “In this area of North Carolina, this is where racing needs to be” because of the deep roots.

Hope and others interviewed said they can see the North Wilkesboro Speedway again being on the NASCAR Cup Series.

Hope and his wife, Julie Hope, and another couple from Washington, John and Christy Vissey, were among the first to set up campers on grounds of the North Wilkesboro Speedway for NASCAR All-Star Race Week.

Hope attended NASCAR Winston Cup races at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1989 and 1990 and said he preferred those experiences more than races at larger tracks.

He said their friends who enjoy racing feel the same way, including people they first met at a race 15 years ago who planned to be at the North Wilkesboro Speedway this week.

Christy Vissey said being at the North Wilkesboro Speedway this week is a once in a lifetime experience. “Even if they have it (NASCAR All-Star Race Week) here next year, it won’t be the same.”

Local people they already met at stores and elsewhere were very friendly, said Vissey, adding that visitors in Washington’s Wenatchee Valley typically don’t have that experience. “The people here are so nice and will talk and laugh with you.”

She said a race with about 30,000 fans (about the crowd size expected each day here this week) is usually a better experience than one with about 100,000.

John Vissey said he prefers races at short tracks like North Wilkesboro because they allow fans to be closer to the action than at larger tracks.

Gary and Tracy Weathers of Altus, Okla., already had a well-established RV campsite at the speedway Monday. They agreed that a big attraction for them are friendships with other campers and the sense of community.

Tracy Weathers was looking forward to attending the haulers parade through the Wilkesboros Thursday evening but Gary Weathers said he had no plans to leave the speedway. Like others interviewed, he said he prefers short tracks.

Kelly and Jennifer Price of Thomasville were enjoying the company of their Great Dane puppy when interviewed.

Jennifer Price is the daughter of Jim Clodfelter, a Thomasville man who was a well-known pit crew member for several racing teams. Because of this, she grew up going to races at the North Wilkesboro Speedway and other tracks.

Price said she was looking forward to the pit crew competition on Friday at the speedway, an event her father used to enjoy.

Ralph Biggs and his son, Mark Farlow, from Carteret County on the North Carolina coast, were also camping on the speedway property and had just returned from buying supplies in Wilkesboro when interviewed.

(The Wilkes Economic Development Corp. hired a University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor to conduct an economic impact study on NASCAR All-Star Race Week here.)

Biggs and Farloiw last attended a race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1988. They stopped at the speedway in 2012 and were shown around by caretaker Paul Call.

They bought tickets for a dirt track race planned here in August 2022, but it was canceled when the decision was made to not repave the track. This made them eligible to be among the first to buy tickets for NASCAR All-Star Week.

Biggs said he was looking forward to the ASA Stars Late Model race on Tuesday and the CARS Pro Late Model race on Wednesday because of the aggressive style of racing in those events.

Biggs recalled the days when would take the family to Ace Speedway and the Piedmont Dragstrip, both in Alamance County, and the 311 Motor Speedway in Stokes County, all in the same weekend.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway rented RV sites for as little as $650 apiece along Fishing Creek on property off Speedway Road about a mile west of the track to as much as $1,000 each on the speedway property immediately north of the main entrance. All of the sites on speedway property were rented out early this week.

Camping is also available this week on the Wilkesboro wastewater treatment plant property and at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge.

Details on parking for events this week at the North Wilkesboro Speedway are at

Parking on property other than lots provided by the speedway is as much as $50 per day for one vehicle.

Applications accepted for Ronda board seat
  • Updated

Applications for filling a vacant Ronda commissioner seat are being accepted, stated a notice put on the Town of Ronda website on May 11.

The vacancy resulted from Kevin Reece being ineligible to continue serving as a Ronda commissioner, said Michael Boaz, manager consultant for the Ronda town board.

The notice said the Ronda board is seeking people interested in filling a vacancy on the board, with the successful candidate to be appointed during the board’s Aug. 8 meeting.

It said applications for the position are available at town hall at 123 Chatham St. in Ronda and must be filled out and returned by 5 p.m. June 30. The notice said questions can be directed to Town Clerk Tracy Romans at 336-835-2061.

Boaz said an April 28 N.C. Supreme Court decision left Reece ineligible to vote and therefore not eligible to serve as an elected official. Under the N.C. Constitution, a person not eligible to vote for an elected office isn’t eligible to hold the office.

In its April 28 decision, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling by stating that North Carolinians convicted of felonies must complete their sentences — including any period of probation or parole — to regain the right to vote.

Reece was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation on March 29 after he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice as Alford pleas, which means he didn’t admit guilt. He was also sentenced to 10-21 months in prison, suspended.

Reece was charged with eight felony counts of obstruction of justice, all accusing him of making false statements about a $53,500 diamond ring to law enforcement. He was also charged with felony possession of stolen goods (the ring). These charges were consolidated into two counts of felony obstruction for sentencing.

Attorney Ed Woltz, who advises the Ronda board on legal matters, concurred with Boaz on Reece’s ineligibility to serve as a commissioner.

Woltz referenced a portion of General Statutes that says, “When any elected city officer ceases to meet all of the qualifications for holding office pursuant to the Constitution…, the office is ipso facto (automatically) vacant.” He said this means no action is required by a board to remove a person from office if the person is ineligible to serve, nor does the person need to formally resign.

Boaz said Reece told him in early May that he wouldn’t attend Ronda board meetings until the deadline for appealing the N.C. Supreme Court’s April 28 decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals passed. Boaz said he believes an appeal must be filed within 30 days, putting the deadline around May 28.

The impact of an appeal on Reece’s status as a commissioner isn’t clear. He is in the third of a four-year term on the board.

People on probation for felony offenses weren’t eligible to vote (and therefore couldn’t serve in elected office) until the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled April 22, 2022, that this was unconstitutional. This is the lower court ruling overturned by the N.C. Supreme Court late last month.

Boaz wrote a statement addressing the matter for the Ronda board to consider adopting at its May 9 meeting. Woltz reviewed this before Ronda Clerk Tracy Romans emailed it to commissioners as Boaz requested on May 8.

Mayor Rheajean Benge stated by email in response, “Yes, I am for this draft. The board should be aware of it and be presented this at the May 9 board meeting.”

It said, “The Board of Commissioners is aware that there has been a lot of discussion and questions regarding the status of Commissioner Kevin Reece and his recent Alford plea to two felony counts of obstruction of justice….

“Article VI, Section 8 of the NC Constitution says that no person convicted of a felony against the State of NC, the United States, or another state is eligible to vote unless his/her voting rights have been restored. The N.C. Constitution also says that in order to hold an elective office you must be eligible to vote in an election for that office.

“Under the provisions of this opinion from the N.C. Court of Appeals (on April 26, 2022), Mr. Reece never lost his right to vote after his Alford plea and thus was eligible to continue to serve on the Ronda Board of Commissioners. On April 28, 2023, the N.C. Supreme Court issued an opinion that overturned the NC Court of Appeals decision and re-instated the provisions of NCGS 13-1. This means that Mr. Reece has lost his right to vote until he has completed any probation ordered by Wilkes County Superior Court. It also means that Mr. Reece is no longer eligible to serve on the Ronda Board of Commissioners.

“This decision of the N.C. Supreme Court may be appealed to the Federal court system. If this happens, it is possible that the Federal courts will stay the effects of the N.C. Supreme Court’s decision, meaning that the ruling of the N.C. Court of Appeals is back in effect. Therefore, the Board will not take any formal action to fill the seat of Mr. Reece until after the time for appeal has expired. The Board will begin to take applications from those who are interested in filling the open seat but will refrain from making any appointments for the time being.

“During this interim period, Mr. Reece will not be participating in any Town Board meetings or other Town business. In addition, the Town will suspend Mr. Reece’s stipend for serving as a Commissioner until this situation is fully resolved.”

Only Commissioners Sandra Simmons and JoAnn Royal attended the May 9 meeting, so there was no quorum and no meeting was held. The other commissioners are Chris Nelson and Helen Porter

Romans told Benge, Simmons, Royal, Nelson and Porter by email on May 10 that she was creating the application form “for anyone interested in filling the vacant seat in the event the courts do not overturn the most recent ruling” and that the notice would be posted the next day, with the June 30 deadline. “If anyone opposes this, please let me know before 5 p.m. today, May 10.” Romans said she received no objections.

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot wasn’t able to reach Reece or Benge for comment on efforts to replace Reece on the board.

Restructuring part of draft N.W. budget
  • Updated

The North Wilkesboro commissioners are considering a draft fiscal 2023-24 budget that leaves the property tax rate unchanged at 52 cents per $100 of property valuation for the 19th year in a row.

Town Manager Holly Minton called it an operating budget without any substantial capital expenses. She presented the proposed budget, her first since she became manager in October, during the May 2 board meeting.

Minton said there are plans to consider large capital expenditures later in the year, “but we are not ready to commit.” She these include improvements to Smoot Park.

She said Town Planner Meredith Detsch and other staff worked together to raise over $1 million for the work at Smoot Park, but more money is needed to quickly complete what is planned.

The draft budget incorporates a restructuring of departments, including moving the green thumb staff who do landscape maintenance work from the streets department to the parks and recreation department.

It also includes putting public utilities and public works under two different directors instead of remaining under one. She said this resulted in the draft budget including $55,000 for an additional vehicle.

Minton said that when she became manager, 40% of the town’s total expenditures were in the hands of one department director, who was the person over public utilities and public works.

“It is difficult to create results when your leadership structure is unbalanced. We had one department head covering three different fields of work and another department head (recreation) without the human resources he needed to fulfill the board’s priorities,” she said in an interview.

“I’m trying to restructure so each person has oversight over fewer people, so there is greater oversight across the board,” she said.

“I feel strongly that to have greater oversight and to create a higher standard for our parks and our greens, it’s important to provide green thumb with a separate supervisor and an additional crew member,” she said, adding that this means adding a person in the street department.

She told the board, “Your priorities for this year reflect the fact that we need to tighten our standards for both parks, greens, streets and sidewalks. Hopefully, the increase in resources will do just that.”

She said the draft budget reflects higher costs due to inflation, including a 5% across the board pay increase for town employees to help maintain competitive salaries. The cost of the pay hike is $178,198.

Minton said the general fund only has modest additional expenditures due to the current level of economic uncertainty.

It has $30,000 for a capital improvements plan with a study to determine capital improvement priorities. Minton said not having the study makes North Wilkesboro less competitive for federal and state grants.

Another $10,000 is included for developing a parks master plan, which she said will increase competitiveness for parks grants.

Minton said the draft budget has $24,000 for employing a lobbyist to seek federal funds for creating a river district as part of the outdoor economy plan. She said it also has $5,000 for the overall outdoor economy plan effort, the first of five annual $5,000 appropriations.

The draft budget has $20,000 for installing LED lights in place of existing park lights. Minton said Wilkes County government was asked to provide $25,000 for LED in place of existing lights at the town’s Memorial Park, which is used for county recreation programs. This allocation isn’t in the county’s proposed 2023-24 budget.

Minton said that with downtown beautification and events being another of the board’s priorities, funding for downtown facade grants was increased by $25,000 to $40,000. She said it appears that many downtown property owners are interested in applying for these funds.

Minton said that in consideration of the EDC acting as North Wilkesboro’s economic development arm, the draft budget increases the town’s appropriation to the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. by $10,000 to $65,000 and makes this a budget line item so the EDC won’t have to request it every year. The board agreed by consensus to increase the EDC appropriation in a workshop earlier this year.

The general fund totals $7.7 million and the water and sewer fund totals $3.03 million. She said budget levels are down about 19% from last year, reflecting American Recovery Plan Act funds and capital expenditures in the 2022-23 budget, including for a new ladder fire truck.

The draft budget doesn’t use any of the town’s undesignated fund balance, which was 78% of general fund expenditures as of June 30.

Minton said the water and sewer fund has minimal changes. It includes the fourth of five annual 2% increases in base and per 1,000 gallon rates approved in fiscal 2020-21.

It has a 5.5% increase to $2.50 per 1,000 gallons in what rural water associations pay for North Wilkesboro water. “The increase is based on market indicators and consultation with neighboring water suppliers. It should maintain a competitive edge, but also increase our revenue for future projects” and for replacing equipment for safety at the wastewater and water treatment plants, she said.

A public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled at the June 6 meeting. Copies of the document are available at town hall.