Public infrastructure was the one area of need that representatives of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Ronda and some other speakers all cited when leaders of 11 state government agencies were here Tuesday for Wilkes County’s turn in “Home Town Strong,” an initiative of Gov. Roy Cooper.
The need for market-rate housing, including rental housing, also was mentioned more than once.
About 20 people who work in Raleigh for the 11 state agencies spent Tuesday morning at the Wilkes Agricultural Center listening to presentations from representatives of the three towns, certain Wilkes County government departments, Wilkes Agricultural Extension Service, Wilkes Economic Development Corp., Wilkes Community College and the Wilkes County Schools.
The local officials spoke for about 10 minutes each. Most gave overviews, cited challenges and told how state government could help.
Dividing into two vans, representatives of the 11 state agencies were then taken on a tour of Wilkes Community College, the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro downtowns and the Wilkes County Airport. They returned for lunch at the ag center.
The state officials then divided into two groups again, with one holding a private meeting with North Wilkesboro officials and the other a private meeting with Wilkesboro officials to discuss local needs.
Represented at the event were leaders in the state departments of administration, commerce, environmental quality, health and human services, information technology, natural and cultural resources, public safety, revenue and transportation and the offices of human resources and budget and management.
Local officials said they were told that Wilkes was about the 30th county visited by Home Town Strong, which will include all of state’s rural counties. They said they were told that the state officials would use what they learned in the sessions to develop proposals for addressing challenges and issues, especially those faced by numerous rural communities.
Several local officials said there was value in them now being able to put faces with names in state agencies.
According to a Home Town Strong brochure, the initiative is designed to provide a more personal and hands-on approach to state government’s reaction to the needs of North Carolina’s rural communities. The goals also include developing partnerships, leveraging state and local resources more effectively and learning what is working in rural communities so it can be shared elsewhere.
County Manager John Yates coordinated the event from the local end.
Representing the towns
North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper, who started in his current position a month ago, said local officials were told the event would result in a written action plan.
When he spoke, Hooper cited the need for increased state financial assistance with transportation systems, including streets and even the Yadkin River Greenway because of its potential in helping people get from one place to another.
The need for improvements in water and sewer infrastructure also was noted.
Hooper also said the character of North Wilkesboro’s citizens are among the town’s greatest assets.
North Wilkesboro’s streetscape work and the construction of the latest additional Samaritan’s Purse building on N.C. 268 East were among the town’s highlights pointed out.
Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said he asked for consideration of establishing a state revolving loan fund for downtown improvements, including such work as moving power lines off Main Street. Noland said this can include putting them underground. He said it can be hard for towns to secure bank loans for this work if they lack assets to put up as collateral.
Noland also commented on the lack of market-rate housing in Wilkesboro.
Andrew Carlton, Wilkesboro planning and community development director, made a presentation on the revitalization of downtown Wilkesboro. The next phase of this work possibly will include moving more power lines from overhead along Main Street.
Ronda Mayor Victor Varela said that over the last two decades, Ronda built a water system for the town and supplied it with two deep wells and then expanded it to the Pleasant Hills area, supplying East Wilkes Middle, East Wilkes High and C.B. Eller Elementary schools.
“During the course of the expansion, we established interconnection with the Town of Elkin, from which we now purchase about 65% of our water,” said Varela. The system includes about 21 miles of waterline, including five miles of 12-inch line along N.C. 268 between Elkin and Ronda for future expansion to either or both the Roaring River and the Clingman areas, he said.
When Wilkes Economic Development Director LeeAnn Nixon spoke, she said state financial aid for infrastructure improvements is critical for helping rural counties like Wilkes be more competitive economically.
She said there is an extremely low inventory of market rate houses and apartments, with a nine to 12-month waiting list for these types of apartments in Wilkes.
Nixon said local companies are hiring, but there is concern about where they will be housed. The lack of housing results in people having to decide between commuting and being more engaged in the community by living here.
She said a better inventory of available buildings and building sites is needed, and she emphasized the importance of continued support of job skills training programs.
Nixon said recent significant economic events in Wilkes include state and grant funding for a water tank at North Wilkesboro’s industrial park to facilitate an expansion at Jeld-Wen and expansion of Samaritan’s Purse.
She also noted the healthy state of entrepreneurism in Wilkes and the county’s extensive fiber optic network for broadband Internet. Nixon said industry clusters here include food processing, back office, building materials and agriculture.
Wilkes Cooperative Extension Director John Cothren shared a report showing the many areas of agriculture in which Wilkes is a leader statewide.
He noted a program, supported by Golden LEAF grant funding, that makes agricultural equipment available to farmers to rent at reduced prices. The initiative is a joint effort of the Wilkes Cooperative Extension Service and the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. Cothren mentioned local events that promote agriculture in Wilkes. The extension service also participates in a statewide program with an app through which local agri-tourism operations are featured online.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard cited the department’s work in health equity and social determinants of health. Greenway access, affordable housing, downtown revitalization and other topics discussed Tuesday are all aspects of public health equity, said Willard.
The health department has partnered with others on social determinants of health such as the Farmers Market Buck program, mobile market van, healthy corner stores and community gardens to increase access to healthy food, she said.
The department’s Mobile Expanded School Health (MESH) unit, almost completely funded with grants and donations, is the only mobile school-based health center in the state.
The department provided mental health counseling in the Wilkes high schools and middle schools, with almost 1,700 mental health visits in the schools last year. Willard cited efforts in tobacco usage prevention in the schools.
She said having adequate public health infrastructure to respond to emergencies is a challenge here, as well as across the state and nation. This includes having adequate staffing and IT equipment and the ability to assess and address community needs in emergencies. She said Wilkes was identified as 104th in risk for an HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak among counties nationwide.
Sixty-three percent of the department’s funding is from federal, local or private sources and 27% from the county.
It is one of three public entity Federally Qualified Health Centers in the state, which Willard said has facilitated expansion of services and patient load in the past two years. “The health center allowed us to now have an integrated behavioral health specialist, and are able to offer more primary care services.”
The department’s second largest funder is the N.C. Office of Rural Health, which provides $450,000 annually in grants for an evening clinic, connecting people to specialty care, providing free diabetes education classes, reducing hospital emergency department visits and providing mental health services to middle and high school students.
Wilkes Department of Social Services Director John Blevins noted how well his agency has done in state-mandated inspections, including having the lowest percentage of errors out of 10 county departments of social services selected for a Medicaid audit. Blevins said that halfway through a three-year audit of all 100 county departments of social services, Wilkes DSS again has some of the best results in the state.
However, Blevins said county DSS agencies are being overwhelmed with audits.
He said Wilkes DSS is using NC Fast, a software system provided by the state for intake and assessment of cases, and stayed in the system when the legislature let counties opt out. “We purchased iPads for our social worker staff and will begin using the mobile app before the end of this year.”
He said the state shouldn’t fully implement NC Fast in child welfare programs until it has been proven to work without flaws in pilot counties.
Blevins said the county commissioners’ decision to become the county DSS board in July 2015 has proven beneficial. “We were struggling with a high turnover rate among our child welfare staff, but the commissioners recognized the problem and worked to raise the social worker pay to second among the 10 counties surrounding Wilkes. This stopped the flow of workers leaving and we currently have zero open positions,” said Blevins.
Blevins said he supports a state proposal to conduct a feasibility and cost study to establish caseload range guidelines, pay scales, funding equity formula and salary pool for child welfare and social service staff because it “would help prevent an arms race for qualified social worker staff.”
He said he is concerned about the state hiring some of the best Wilkes DSS employees to help staff proposed regional offices. “We lost our best Medicaid supervisor to the state after the 10-county audit.”
Blevins said that when four children in this country illegally were recently placed in foster care by Wilkes DSS, the agency had to buy private insurance for them because they weren’t eligible for Medicaid. He said this was the first time this occurred in his five years as Wilkes DSS director and it never occurred in the eight years as Alleghany County DSS director.
Blevins added, “State policy in some foster care programs is becoming unreasonable. We keep getting new policies and expectations but nothing is taken away.” He said growth in the number of foster children is adversely impacting staff, especially because of travel involved as more children are placed out of county due to lack of places for them in Wilkes.