Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- Chowan County Crisis Presents Opportunity

Article by Bob Steinburg
- Edenton, North Carolina: Cradle of the Colony

Edenton is the county seat of Chowan County and represents one third of its population; it is also the hub of social, cultural and government activity for the almost 15,000 people who call Chowan County home.

Edenton is steeped in history and its development parallels that of this great nation. Edentonians are justifiably proud of their heritage.

But the majority of Chowan’s citizens live in places like Rocky Hock and Tyner, Center Hill, Drummonds Point, Ryland and Gliden. Many farms dot the rural landscape and the good folks who call these environs home are familiar names like Nixon, Evans, Goodwin, Harrell, Byrum and Perry.

Black and white, Chowan’s rural citizens have tilled these productive soils for generations. And when their lives are over it will be this same mother earth that will open her arms and cradle their remains forever.

I have encountered grown men that live here whose eyes well with tears when speaking about the connection between themselves and their land. It’s as if they are talking about a son who just graduated from college or their little girl who is about to be married. It’s personal with these folks and they’re not ashamed to share that; hard for city or town folk to understand perhaps, but it’s just as authentic as Mom, apple pie and the American flag.

There is another group of folks who have settled here. They are the come-here’s, significantly represented by retirees who were seeking an oasis from high taxes, air pollution, inclement weather, exorbitant utility bills and escalating crime rates. These transplants bring their money, their expertise and their energy, which they gladly invest in real estate, small businesses and volunteerism. They weren’t born here but they love this place for many of the same reasons as those who call themselves natives.

Chowan County is currently $4 million in the red, spending 11.6 million more than it took in between 2004-2007. The $19.5 million they had in the bank five years ago has evaporated. In 1998 when the county sold its hospital for $29.5 million those funds were to be restricted with only a portion of the interest earned available to the general fund. It’s all gone.

Yet incredulously some long tome residents believe the come-here’s are some how responsible for this financial nightmare. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact from a fiscal standpoint the opposite is true. Chowan has benefited immensely from the increased tax revenue stream these folks have generated into county coffers. In addition, these groups of taxpayers place no burden on the local school system, which is one of the biggest line items in any county budget. This is true of other county services and programs as well. The come-here’s fill the rolls of volunteerism but are not currently serving as elected government decision makers.

Consider this: The Chowan County Board of Commissioners, the folks who decide how taxpayer money will be spent, is made up entirely of individuals who have lived here all or most of their lives. Former County Manager Cliff Copeland has resided here for thirty years. Come- here’s are victims too- just like every other Chowan County citizen.

There is another group of Chowan residents scattered among the populace that are referred to, and not always endearingly, as the “Good ol’ boys.” These are the power brokers, the movers and shakers whose only desire is to keep the same political structure in place that will work for their interests, insuring that taxpayer money and projects will circulate among the few. They don’t see themselves as doing anything wrong but rather as opportunists who are merely functionaries in a system that in the broadest sense entitles them to their fair share.

The classic signs of political arrogance have swirled around the citizens who live here for years but the folks chose to look the other way. Commissioners claim some of the problems Chowan is experiencing today are the result of a lack of citizen attendance and/or participation at their regular public monthly meetings. With alternating starting times of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. how much citizen participation did they really expect or want? And county employees were confronted when they attended commissioner meetings on their own time.

It’s always easier to accept what we’re told as gospel rather than to question what, why and how things are being done. And as a result, Chowan’s citizens either unwittingly or apathetically became victims of a fiscal charade that has this county on the brink of financial collapse.

The four aforementioned groups of people, uniquely different in many ways, must now find a way to come together to solve an epic crisis that one way or the other will change this county forever. This is no time to place a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. Chowan government needs a long- term fix that will assure its citizens that this type of fiscal irresponsibility never happens again. Government must be made to work better and controls need to be put in place that will insure transparency and accountability.

Within the worst of any crisis there is also opportunity. While our commissioners and former county manager may now be a laughingstock around the state and referred to by some as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” there is nonetheless opportunity. If there was criminal activity, those found responsible by the criminal investigation currently underway must be accountable. But most importantly, government leaders and those they represent must create a fix that will stand the test of time. Encouraging- and then most importantly considering- all citizen input would be a great first step.

The folks here need to remove whatever barriers separate them once and for all. That might be difficult under normal circumstances but this fiscal crisis is anything but normal. To solve it will require the cooperation, participation, patience and understanding of everyone. In every crisis there is an opportunity.

The most interesting part of this article is the apparent willingness of some in Chowan County to set one group of citizens against another group of citizens. How did any citizen contribute to this problem?


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