Friday, August 01, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- A County’s Crisis In Confidence

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

Chowan County and its county seat of Edenton are referred to by many as the “Crown Jewels of the Albemarle.” The historical significance of this area has always been a source of pride to all who have ever called this idyllic setting home. With the recent revelations of this county’s unraveling financial crisis, the regalia are beginning to lose a bit of their luster.

Small town America takes pride in claiming they know most everyone in town. And there is not much that gets by these folks. But the bombshell dropped on Chowan County last week concerning the frying of their $29 million nest egg has the citizenry in a state of shock.

When Chowan County leased its hospital to University Health Systems in 1998, it received approximately $29 million. The county commissioners in office at that time wisely decided to set this money aside in reserves with only one caveat; that only 75 percent of the interest earned could ever be expended. The remaining 25 percent would be added to the principal insuring a safety net for years to come. That financial cushion has now evaporated. It went toward balancing the budgets of the last several years. Yet the county commissioners who are required to approve each budget claim they had no idea these funds were being used to do so.

When Chowan County began living beyond its financial means eight years ago the prospects for growth looked promising. So what did they do? They bet on the come. Unfortunately for them the come never came-at least not yet. Unlike our federal government, the county can’t simply print more money when it runs short. It can only raise taxes, cut services, jobs, and payroll, or all of the above. They can also borrow. And with a rosy future in the offing they saw no problem in borrowing from themselves. They pursued grant money for this project or that; giddy at the prospect of free money to help them pursue capital projects they might otherwise have to put on hold. But grant money seldom, if ever, pays for any project in its entirety, thus often necessitating finding additional money from existing county coffers or anticipated future revenues.

The new public safety building and library are gorgeous monuments of brick and steel, but did a county whose population hasn’t grown in years and whose unemployment rate ranks among the highest in the state really need them?

Did Chowan need to be paying its county manager at the same level of salary and benefits as county managers responsible for populations and land masses much larger than theirs?

And what about the search for a new county manager to replace Cliff Copeland, the man who now is allegedly at the center of this firestorm who retired at the end of May. Was there a real honest to goodness search for his replacement? There were only three applicants. Or was this a pre-ordained back room deal?

Late last week Chowan County Commissioner Bill Gardner, Jr. telephoned me stating he was returning from Raleigh after a Coastal Resources Commission meeting. Gardner opined on Chowan’s financial crisis and mentioned that new county manager Peter Rascoe had taken the initiative to contact the North Carolina Local Government Commission to enlist their help with Chowan’s monetary dilemma. Gardner said Chowan’s situation appeared “desperate” and that he was clueless as to how this crisis happened. To his credit Gardner also said he thought raising taxes on any of Chowan’s citizens was no option. “We can’t ask taxpayers to pay for our mistakes. We’ve got to fix this and do it right and the only way to accomplish that is to start cutting.”

Comments from Gardner and other commissioners like “we were blindsided,” and “I never saw an audit in four years,” along with “I have searched and have yet to find the minutes where we authorized the transfers from the reserves,” seem on the surface incredulous. But even if these protestations are true, they belie an even larger concern that these statements are a blatant admission of fiduciary incompetence on the part of the entire county board of commissioners. Consider this:

County Commissioner Harry Lee Winslow said Copeland “was trying to look out for the county and not raise our taxes.” Really?

Commissioner Jimmy Alligood said: “To know that $20 million dollars was spent and we didn’t know it is shocking.” I’ll say.

Commissioner Kenny Goodwin states “I’m not going to say I was lied to, but I didn’t get the whole truth.”It would seem to me that the job of any county commissioner includes getting to the truth, whatever it takes-and it shouldn’t have taken this long.

County Commission Chairman Ralph Cole said: “People will get the impression we were poor managers: we’re not.” The folks from Chowan County will have an opportunity to weigh in on those words this November.

There is only one Chowan county commissioner to date that has publicly taken even a minutia of responsibility for this financial debacle and that’s Commissioner Bill Gardner, Jr. He told The Virginian-Pilot over the weekend: “I’ll accept whatever part I’ve played.” Every other commissioner and anyone else ever involved in this budget dilemma might consider doing likewise.

Commissioner Gardner also told me it was the county manager’s job to run the county not the county commissioners. If that’s true that’s the equivalent of the tail wagging the dog and perhaps the root cause of this board of commissioners inability to keep this financial travesty from occurring. Their 99.487 percent unanimous “yes” voting record over the last five years may further confirm that suspicion.

And the beleaguered former Chowan county manager Cliff Copeland told the press last week that “This is not the outcome I had hoped.” The angry, frustrated and disappointed citizens of Chowan County, sadly, never imagined this outcome either.

One party rule never works. Eastern North Carolina is the home of the loyal conservative Democrats who vote for people who do not share any of their values. It is a good old boy system where free enterprise supporting family values Democrats elect socialist loving anti-Christian bigots who loyally support the socialist agenda of the national party, not the wishes of their constituents. The lip service to fiscal discipline breaks down and even when there is no corruption, the tax payers wind up getting fleeced.

Cliff Copeland is building a fancy new house down at the water. Who else thinks this is highly suspicious?


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