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January 31, 2023

Commissioners take oaths of office

COUNTY COMMISSIONERS TAKE OATHS — Chief District Court Judge Dale Graham (far right) administered the oath of office to recently-elected members of the Alexander County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education at the beginning of the commissioners’ December 5th meeting. Commissioners who were sworn in include Larry Yoder (third from left), Marty Pennell (fifth from left), Ronnie Reese (fifth from right), and Kent Herman (second from right). During the meeting, Commissioners elected Marty Pennell to serve as Chairman and Josh Lail to serve as Vice Chairman, effective January 2023.

Board hears “clean” County audit report

Kent Herman, Marty Pennell, Ronnie Reese, and Larry Yoder took the oath of office at the Monday, December 5, meeting to begin their new terms on the Alexander County Board of Commissioners.

Chief District Court Judge L. Dale Graham administered the oath of office to the four commissioners, as well as four new Board of Education members: Robert Arguelles, Joshua Dagenhart, Anthony McLain, and Matthew Reese.

Commissioner Pennell is serving his second consecutive four-year term, Commissioner Reese is serving his third consecutive four-year term, and Commissioner Yoder is serving his fifth four-year term. Commissioner Herman was elected to complete a two-year term that resulted from the passing of Commissioner Jeff Peal in 2021.

At the meeting, the board unanimously elected Marty Pennell as chairman and Josh Lail as vice chairman of the board, effective January 2023.

In other business:

• Newly elected Sheriff Chad Pennell briefly outlined his plans for placing a School Resource Officer (SRO) at six elementary schools. In November, Dr. Jennifer Hefner, Superintendent of Alexander County Schools, reported that the school system received the Center for Safer Schools School Safety Grant in the amount of $308,000 for SROs. At that time, Sheriff Chris Bowman said the sheriff’s office would need to hire six new employees to fill the SRO roles for a total of $900,000, of which the county would pay $636,000 for the first year.

Sheriff Pennell said he wants to lessen the burden on the county by reclassifying three current officers to become SROs, and only hiring three new officers. He estimates the first-year cost to the county would be approximately $104,876.75 for employee benefits and equipment.

Commissioners scheduled a special meeting for Monday, December 12, at 6:00 p.m. to further discuss and take action on the SRO proposal.

• Erica Brown of Martin Starnes & Associates CPAs presented the 2021-2022 audited financial statements. The CPA firm issued an “unmodified opinion,” which means they found no material misstatements that led them to believe the financial statements would be misleading to the reader.

She reported that the General Fund Revenues were comprised mainly of property taxes at 47 percent, local option sales tax at 28 percent, and restricted intergovernmental (federal and state grants) at 12 percent. Property tax revenues increased by $227,278 (1.04 percent). Local option sales tax increased by $1,078,311 (9 percent). The restricted intergovernmental revenues decreased by $4,378 (-0.1 percent).

In terms of General Fund Expenditures, the four largest areas of spending include public safety (32 percent), human services (25 percent), education (18 percent), and general government (17 percent). Public safety expenditures increased by $1,862,682 (16.4 percent). Human services expenditures increased $540,189 (5.5 percent). Education expenditures increased by $41,425 (0.6 percent). General government expenditures increased by $519,851 (8 percent).

General Fund debt balance as of June 30, 2022, totaled $2,689,000 (public safety) which will be paid off in 2026.

Available fund balance increased by $783,413 (4.1 percent), which brings the county’s fund balance percentage to 43.14 percent (46.16 percent in 2021) of total General Fund expenditures and transfers, for a total available fund balance of $19,978,985 ($19,195,572 in 2021). Brown said the median available fund balance percentage is 39 percent in NC counties with less than $100 million in expenditures.

The Solid Waste Fund showed a budgetary net income of $154,927. The Bethlehem water fund showed a budgetary net income of $708,357 and the county’s water and sewer fund had a budgetary net income of $344,471. The total debt on water and sewer funds is $12,081,028, which will be paid off in 2041.

Brown said she was pleased to report that the county had no general performance indicators of concern. She said that two material weaknesses were discovered at the Department of Social Services for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) and the Foster Care program.

Chairman Ronnie Reese said, “We have done a lot of projects in Alexander County which required us to spend some money, but we have tried to save as much as possible. We’re pleased to hear such a favorable audit report and we appreciate the hard work of our finance department.”

• Pamela Bowman, Alexander County Soil and Water Education Coordinator, presented an update on stream restoration projects that resulted from the flooding in November 2020. The Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) provided funding to remove debris from three sites. The EWP project should be completed in early 2023. Bowman said bids are being accepted through December 21 to remove debris from one or two sites using state emergency funds. She said that bids will soon be accepted for the Stream Rehabilitation Assistance Program (StRAP), which will hopefully fund debris removal for three sites.

• Commissioners then approved a rezoning request from Bethlehem Baptist Church. Brian Burgess, Alexander County Director of Planning and Development, presented the rezoning petition for the 4.16-acre parcel located just north of the church off NC Hwy. 127. The property will be rezoned from RA-20 (residential-agricultural) to H-C (highway-commercial).

• The commissioners approved a text amendment petition from Friendship Lutheran Church to amend the zoning ordinance to exempt signs for non-profit or government organizations that meet existing standards. The church wishes to install an electronic message board.

• Commissioners also approved a text amendment petition from planning staff to revise the zoning ordinance for a variety of items, including granting staff the right to pick up and dispose of temporary signs in the right-of-way, allowing carports that are attached to the driveway, amending penalties for zoning violations, changing minimum housing lot size to 12,000 square feet in specific zoning districts, and more.

• Tennille Hileman, District Administrator for 22A, presented an update on the Guardian ad Litem program in Alexander County. She said the agency gets involved in court cases involving child abuse and neglect. Hileman said she is actively recruiting volunteers from Alexander County to represent local children in court. For more information, visit www.volunteerforgal.org or contact Hileman at (704) 832-6816 or tennille.hileman@nccourts.org.

• Commissioners also approved a proclamation declaring December 1-31, 2022, as “Christmas in Bethlehem.” The Bethlehem community hosts the Star Lighting, Christmas in Bethlehem Drive-Thru, and other popular activities every December.

Consolidated Human Services Board Meeting

Following the regular meeting, commissioners convened a meeting of the Consolidated Human Services Board, which meets quarterly.

• Billie Walker, Health Director, presented an accreditation update. She said the NC Local Health Department Accreditation Board met on November 18 and voted to approve a recommendation for Accreditation with Honors for the Alexander County Health Department. The local health team will hold quarterly meetings and begin gathering data in preparation for the next accreditation in 2026.

Walker also provided an update on communicable diseases, noting that there have been 19 cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days, with an uptick over the past three days both in the county and the region. There was an additional death related to the virus on November 21, bringing the total to 154 deaths. There have been 12,210 cumulative cases. She said that Alexander County has not had a case of Monkeypox, and the case rate is stable across the state. Influenza cases are on the rise statewide with 35 deaths this season, including one death in Alexander County. RSV cases are also on the rise, especially in adults.

The health department is seeking input from residents age 15+ for its 2022 Community Health Assessment survey. Data from the survey will be used to describe the health status of the Alexander County community and to identify focus areas. Citizens can access the survey at https://bit.ly/2022-community-health-assessment.

The health department also has a new temperature-controlled storage unit and staff is working diligently to organize and inventory supplies.

• Kristy Hunt, Senior Center Director, said participation continues to increase in center activities such as exercise classes, needlework, woodcarving, line dancing, art classes, games, seminars, lunches, and more. A blood drive will be held at the center on December 22 from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. and she encourages the public to give the gift of life. The center celebrated its 30th anniversary on October 7, with approximately 70 people in attendance. The center recently received a $2,800 fraud prevention grant and will conduct a shred-a-thon and other activities. AARP tax assistance will be provided for citizens of all ages on Saturdays beginning in February. Medicare open enrollment began October 15 and ends December 7. The staff has assisted 350 seniors since October 15 to help them save money on Medicare drug plans.

• Trena Riddle, DSS Income Maintenance Program Manager, and Michael Dodson, DSS Business Officer, provided an update for the department of social services.

Dodson said the department has hired 11 new employees since October, with only five vacant positions, with interviews scheduled for three of the six vacancies.

Riddle said the department is doing more in terms of employee engagement to help with retention. Activities have included a trick-or-treat event, a “boo breakfast,” a Thanksgiving meal, and a snack day.

She said staff recently met with Emergency Management Coordinator Daniel Fox to begin training with local emergency personnel and the American Red Cross to be prepared to establish an emergency shelter if the need arises.

Riddle also stated that improvements have been made to the playground at DSS using $4,300 in donations for new mulch, replacement of equipment and picnic tables, and more.

Dodson provided a child adoption update. He said there are currently 17 children who are available for adoption. The department has completed six adoptions this year, with four adoptions this month.

The next meeting of the Alexander County Board of Commissioners is set for Monday, December 12 at 6:00 p.m. at the CVCC Alexander Center for Education (room #103). Regular meetings are recorded and can be viewed on the county’s Government Channel on Spectrum channel 192 or the county’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/alexandercountync. Meeting agendas, minutes, videos, and more are available on the county’s website at https://alexandercountync.gov/commissioners.

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