Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- Opportunity Comes Knocking In Eastern Carolina

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

The Beverly Hillbillies starring the late actor Buddy Ebsen ran on the CBS Television Network from 1962-1971. Jed Clampett (Ebsen) and his family were Hillbillies who didn’t have two rocks to rub together. While out hunting for food on his land Jed shoots, missing his target but hitting a spot in the ground where oil suddenly erupts. This accidental discovery of “black gold or Texas tea” makes the Clampetts instant millionaires and they move from the mountains to California.

Well, we may not have any hillbillies living in eastern North Carolina but many can identify with tough economic times. It started in the 1980’s when the textile mills began to close impacting towns like Williamston, Windsor, Ahoskie, Plymouth, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Goldsboro and Kinston. And then in the 1990’s, tobacco, the cash crop for generations of east North Carolinians was virtually destroyed by the U. S. governments over regulation of that industry. While tobacco is still grown here the states yield pales in comparison to its heyday.

In the late ’90s as part of the tobacco settlement package worked out between the individual states and the major cigarette manufacturers, North Carolina decided to use some of its proceeds to establish the Golden Leaf Foundation. A significant amount of this money was to be used to revitalize the economies of those communities where tobacco was once king.

Unfortunately the foundation-like much in Raleigh- has become politicized with appointees who disburse funds to pet projects around the state. Today it’s nothing more than a political slush fund.

When an economic decline begins to settle in, it is like a cancer spreading everywhere. First the jobs go, and then the downtown areas start to deteriorate, highlighted by vacant storefronts. Often the schools follow suit as tax money begins to dry up- taxes increase for those left to foot the bills. The vibrancy of such a community-an attraction and sense of community pride in the past-is replaced by an aura of gloom, despair and hopelessness.

The government cannot solve these problems alone as evidenced by what has happened with the Golden Leaf Foundation’s disbursements of “awards.” Legislators in Raleigh can’t seem to resist bastardizing even the best of legislation’s original intent by politicizing and compromising the original purpose to best serve those in power’s personal needs and agenda. If they merely throw a bone here and there the folks will be happy. Two of those bones have become boners in the form of the Global Transpark in Kinston and the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids. Both to this point are unmitigated financial disasters.

With many parts of the east on life-support, state government must keep increasing social programs. Basic sustenance may be provided, but no opportunity for the future is offered. Washington can’t print money and Raleigh can’t give it away fast enough to folks here who need assistance. What eastern North Carolina desperately lacks are jobs. Only the private sector can provide the kind of help that’s needed.

Nationally, the energy crisis contributes to escalating unemployment and economic hardship. It’s even worse in eastern North Carolina where unemployment was already high.

The U. S. Senate is now considering legislation called the Gasoline Price Reduction Act of 2008, supported by North Carolina Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr. This act would promote domestic development of energy, increasing supplies by safely producing oil off our shores. If passed, off shore drilling would be allowed but only at a minimum of 50 miles off the coast. And most of the known resources for oil and natural gas lay between 30 and 40 miles out, according to Dr. Roy Cordato of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Accommodating environmentalists wary of spills and beach lovers with their scenic concerns were part of the reasoning for establishing a 50 mile limit. But retired Navy Lt. Commander James Robison of Edenton tells me that from the bridge of a carrier under the most optimum weather conditions one can see no further than 7.5 miles; so much for the scenic concerns.

And as for the environmentalists who fear coastal spills, they should be consoled in the knowledge that during Hurricane Katrina oil platforms with new and improved safety technology were able to cap the oil at the ocean bottom before the storm hit the coast of Louisiana with its full fury. In fact the spill ratio for off shore drilling is down to .001 percent according to information provided by American’s for Prosperity. They estimate North Carolina can have the oil out of the ground in 12 months.

If Congress passes the Gasoline Price Reduction Act of 2008 it will create jobs throughout the eastern part of the state with the eventual building of pipelines and storage and transportation facilities; and then what about refineries and the other facilities necessary for processing and distribution? In addition there are manufacturers of plastics and other by-products that could relocate here as well. Instead of boom- to- bust as we experienced with cotton and tobacco we have the potential of going from bust- to- boom.

Gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory and Beverly Perdue have different views on this all important issue. McCrory is in favor of deep sea exploration and development off the shores of North Carolina within the federal guidelines mandated. Perdue is against it.

Beverly Perdue is from New Bern in eastern North Carolina but is part of a mind set in Raleigh that wants to continue business as usual. That is simply unacceptable.

Republicans at all levels of government want to drill- the Democrats want to stall. Voters concerned about energy costs need to weigh in with their elected representatives at the state and federal level now.

Unlike Jed Clampett, those in eastern North Carolina don’t have to rely on luck to turn their fortunes. They just need to vote-and vote wisely. Their future and that of America depends on it.

Good article. It is on point to recognize the huge potential for NC of off shore drilling, especially with the expectation of natural gas for our area. We could use much of that ourselves right here in Eastern Carolina.

Bob makes an important point when he exposes the dismal track record of government “development”. Government has never had a good track record of picking winners and losers. The most important aspect is to get government out of stopping development. Bev Purdue’s insistence that no drilling will occur is typical of the desire of Democrats to block and control business.

We have had enough of that in the last 40 years. All of our problems are a result of socialist control of business. Free enterprise is the best solution to provide goods at cost effective prices. We really ought to try that again.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chowan Officials Display Arrogance

by Bob Steinburg - August 18th, 2008 - Daily Advance

First to speak was Commissioner Jimmy Alligood, who launched into a soliloquy that included attacks on come-here's who were here seeking low taxes, as if somehow this were relevant to the issue. He was resoundingly booed and silenced, but not before he made a motion for the commissioners to accept option 2, which increased Chowan's tax rate by effectively nine cents.


Commissioner Jerry Downum lost his cool when he yelled at Sams earlier saying "Where the heck were you when we had these meetings?" Commissioner Kenny Goodwin, before seconding the motion to accept Option 2A (Alligood had moved to accept option 2) said he was embarrassed by the behavior of the citizens in attendance inciting the ire of many.

One Party Rule. That is what we have here in Eastern North Carolina. One Party Rule. And in the above average income area known as Chowan County, you would think that the party of "tax and spend" could accomplish a measure of fiscal discipline. However the reality is, no amount of money is ever enough for Democrats. They love to spend so much that any restraint is considered unacceptable. They are "embarrassed by the behavior of the citizens" whenever the citizens disagree with their totalitarian rule.

Chowan County had a trust fund of $29 million. HAD being the operative word. Quietly, without reporting it to the public, the trust fund has been dissipated. If you read Bob's article you will see that there is as much anger by the public officials at anyone who dares challenge their incompetence in squandering the money as there is by taxpayers who resent the assumption that, the commissioners having squandered the money, the taxpayers should simply give the same crowd more money to squander.

Bob calls it arrogance. No matter how much I agree, it is clear these Democrat officials don't agree with that characterization. They are used to one party rule and they don't accept in any degree that they owe the public an explanation. In reality it is clear the problem is one party rule.

The local conservatives that have stayed in the Democrat Party while it became the Marxist party of our nation, need to wake up. They are enabling the "tax and spend" party to mess up our local governments. It is time for one party rule to end.

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?

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- Chowan’s Citizens Deserve Answers Now

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

Monday evening, August 3, was typically hot, steamy and humid in eastern North Carolina. It seemed even more so in Edenton, especially if you were one of an overflow crowd packed into the antiquated Swain Auditorium to hear options available to Chowan County residents for dealing with the hellish financial crises that arose just over one week ago. It was almost as if I and the others in the auditorium were in a time warp, playing extras in the 1962 movie classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck.

In that movie Atticus Finch (Peck), a young idealistic attorney, defends a young black man charged with rape but who against all odds is ultimately found innocent in a racially prejudice Depression-era small southern town.

It appears Cliff Copeland, the former 29 year Chowan County manager who retired in mid-June may need someone like Atticus to defend him, depending on how the investigation into this county’s financial woes continues to play out.

If Chowan County government and some of its citizens have their way, Copeland will be the fall guy. And after listening to the Chowan commissioners recently-hired attorney John Morrison there appears to be ample evidence that Copeland, at the very least may have been negligent. Preliminary indications seem to suggest he may have failed to carry out the directives set forth by the sitting county commissioners in 1998 as to how they wanted the $29 million proceeds from the sale of the county’s hospital handled.
The commissioners at that time “mandated” that only 75 percent of the interest earned could be available for the county’s general fund. The remaining 25 percent plus the principal would remain in the investment account insuring Chowan’s financial “endowment” would continue to grow.

With all due respect to Mr. Morrison or any other attorney the county might have hired for their investigation, it could be difficult to be completely objective when the folks who should be included in the investigation are the very ones who are paying you to conduct it.

Morrison apparently got the message after last Monday’s meeting when the folks didn’t seem to be buying what he was selling. He referred to Chowan’s new county manager Peter Rascoe this way: “If there are any heroes left in this tragedy, it’s Peter Rascoe, your new county manager.” There was a mixed reaction from the audience on this and other statements he made implying limited or no apparent culpability on the part of others. The next day Morrison, with the approval of Commissioners Chairman Ralph Cole, sought out District Attorney Frank Parrish to intercede. Parrish has since asked the State Bureau of Investigation to launch a probe into Chowan’s fiscal crisis.

Rascoe may indeed end up being a hero in all of this, but we don’t know that yet. Before being named Chowan’s new county manager in June, Rascoe served as Chowan’s county attorney for four years along with being the county’s special projects manager. He was one of only three applicants interviewed for the job to replace Copeland.

In researching the posting for the position for Chowan County’s new manager, I could only find a single link through the North Carolina association of commissioner’s web site. Rascoe was hired without any previous experience as an assistant or full-time county manager other than working in the Chowan county manager’s office where he occupied the second floor. Rascoe now finds himself faced with a financial debacle that would test even the most seasoned county manager. Chowan residents can only hope that Rascoe is not in over his head.

John O’Donnell, one of the citizens who rose to speak Monday evening moved to Edenton several years ago. He’s a retired attorney who was with the state Attorney General’s office in Maryland. O’Donnell stressed the importance of conducting an “independent investigation” that would include looking into signoffs, invoices, contracts, e-mails and all audit functions-in other words a complete and thorough investigation of each and every aspect of county management’s activities for at least the last five years.
And speaking of audits, Steve Biggs, an Edenton town councilman, rose to defend J. P. Timberlake III, who has been conducting Chowan County audits for 30 years- almost the same length of time that Copeland served as Chowan’s county manager. He was paid handsomely for these duties - $30,000 last year.

But 30 years of county audits performed by the same individual for the same county manager may have become too comfortable an arrangement.

Since the 2001 Enron scandal, a growing number of companies, non-profits and governmental agencies are rotating their auditing firms every three to five years in on-going efforts to protect themselves from financial irregularities or malfeasance. Chowan County government apparently didn’t see the need to follow suit.

Many folks here are angry at the possibilities of an additional loss of jobs, cuts in county services and higher real estate taxes. One gentleman even suggested Chowan trim personnel and salaries from the top of their hierarchical ladder down.

The county commissioners, who to date have been less than heroic, should immediately pass a measure reducing the salary for Rascoe and others at the top of the county pay scale by an amount at least equal in percentage to the tax increase they are considering for Chowan’s citizens. County commissioners should also forgo their $500 per month stipend, as some have already done, for the balance of the year. These actions would not only begin to show solidarity with the suffering and pain of their beleaguered constituents, but would be the first serious signs of contrition from many of those directly or indirectly responsible for Chowan’s fiscal crisis.

I have a problem with one party rule. Each time I have heard about this problem in Chowan County I have had the same reaction. One Party Rule is alive and well in Eastern North Carolina.

If we were able to investigate some of the other Counties in this area, how likely is it we would not find some examples of the same kind of hidden waste and corruption? It is there just below the surface every time one party rule goes on for too long. We have had one party rule here in Eastern North Carolina for more than 100 years.

There are some good people in the Democrat Party, but one party rule allows for bad actors to corrupt the process. That is why America has always worked well only when there are two parties seriously contesting for political power.

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?