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Deputy treasurer to address city finances

Two officials from the state treasurer’s office plan to discuss city finances before the public during a visit Monday before the Goldsboro City Council.

Sharon Edmundson, deputy treasurer and director of the State and Local Government Finance Division of the Department of State Treasurer, and Susan McCullen, director of the Fiscal Management Section of the Local Government Commission, will be at the council’s 7 p.m. meeting in the Council Chambers of City Hall, 214 N. Center St.

“They are intending to come down and describe to the city’s staff and citizens what is currently happening with the city’s finances,” said state Treasurer Dale R. Folwell. “It is not common for the LGC to visit a city, but we don’t hesitate to initiate a visit if we believe one is warranted. Sometimes units request a visit as well.

“If we are visiting to address the elected board, it’s usually because we have concerns about the overall fiscal health of a unit of government that we want to ensure are made clear to the governing board.”

Edmundson and McCullen have notified city officials on multiple occasions during the past two years about concerns regarding city finances due to the failure to submit fiscal audits on time and accordance with state law. The city’s fiscal 2018-19 audit was submitted 19 months late, resulting in the city losing its bond rating, having N.C. Housing Finance Agency funding frozen and crippling the city’s chance of securing debt financing.

The city’s 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal year audits are also past due.

Edmundson and McCullen’s visit is related to the city’s 2019-20 and 2020-21 audits, Folwell said.

Information provided by the N.C. Department of the State Treasurer notes that if a municipality has multiple late audits, it is placed on the Unit Assistance List, a watch list of the LGC, a state agency that oversees local government budgets, audits and debt management. The city is on the watch list due to not completing and sending to the LGC 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal audits on time.

Being on the watch list limits a municipal government’s ability to borrow money without LGC approval.

Folwell said the city is not at a point at which the LGC is going to take over the city’s finances.

Goldsboro was placed on the LGC’s Unit Assistance List in fiscal year 2018-19, according to the state treasurer’s office. Documents provided by the N.C. Department of State Treasurer reveal that the amount of money in the city’s general fund at the time were of primary concern. Concerns over lack of staffing in the city’s finance department also played into the city being placed on the list.

The city’s audit for fiscal year 2020-21 has not been received by the LGC, and as a result, the LGC cannot say what concerns may exist with the audit, according to state treasurer documents.

Councilwoman Hiawatha Jones said Friday she is concerned about the LGC making an appearance before the council.

“As a city council member, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the city and the constituents,” Jones said. “Late audits have affected the economic growth of the city by causing an inability to secure loans and lose its bonding and credit ratings.

“Many of my constituents are very concerned about the financial state of their city. Make no mistake, I have shared my appreciation on numerous occasions to the staff who work hard. For many years, the city of Goldsboro has received awards for its accounting and audits reporting. Now we are on a watch list for troubled municipalities and have become a city in distress. How can we make it right? I am looking forward to hearing the presentation of the Local Government Commission. Hopefully, this presentation will enlighten all of us.”

Councilman Gene Aycock said he didn’t know enough about the LGC visit to comment.

The city council received an update for its audit for fiscal year 2019-20 at its Dec. 21 meeting from John Frank, an auditor with Dixon Hughes Goodman, though it still has yet to receive the complete audit.

Frank told council the firm was hopeful it would have the audit complete after the holidays.

At the meeting, Jones asked Frank why the audit was late. Frank cited staffing shortages in the city finance department. He also said auditors will start working on the 2020-21 audit after finishing work on the fiscal 2019-20 audit.

“Once this audit’s complete, we’ll begin working on the 2021 audit, which I believe we should be ready to start working on that in May,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get back on a more timely, current schedule to complete the current audit.”

City staff said the reason behind the delay of the fiscal 2018-19 audit was due to discrepancies found in the audit after the council hired a new auditing firm and to finance staffing challenges at the time.

The delinquent audit resulted in Moody’s Investors Service, which determines the credit worthiness of borrowers, including municipalities, withdrawing the city’s Aa2 credit rating.

Edmundson pointed out the loss of the Moody’s rating in a letter sent to city leaders on Oct. 29, 2020.

The 2018-19 audit showed years of decline in the fund balance. The audit also determined expenses outweighed revenues in the city’s utility fund. Revenues in the fund were reported at $16.1 million while expenses topped $17 million. Revenues increased to $17 million in 2019 and expenses continued to exceed revenues, at $19.3 million.

Working capital in the city’s utility fund also declined from $7.9 million in 2016 to $2.6 million in 2019.

LaToya Henry, Goldsboro public information officer, did not respond to multiple requests this week for the current amount of the city’s fund balance.

Dan Way, North Carolina Department of State Treasurer communications manager, confirmed the amount of the city’s fund balance Friday.

The city of Goldsboro’s total fund balance as of June 30, 2019 — the most recent year for which information is available — was $10,787,621, a decrease from $12,274,765 at June 30, 2018.

“Fund balance available as of June 30, 2019, the total amount that was legally available to appropriate in the 2020 budget, was $4,588,370, or 11.34% of total General Fund expenditures for that year,” Way said. “The average fund balance amount for a city the size of Goldsboro was 55.47%.”

The LGC recommends local governments maintain an unrestricted fund balance of 8% to cover at least a month’s worth of expenses.

Wayne County’s other municipalities — Pikeville, Mount Olive, Fremont, Eureka and the Village of Walnut Creek — are also on the LGC Unit Assistance List, according to N.C. Department of State Treasurer documents.

Parents navigate COVID-19 vaccine choice

While some parents are rushing out to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, others want more studies to be done before getting the shots for theirs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that children ages 5 through 11 get the Pfizer shot. CDC director Rochelle P. Walensky made the recommendation in a media statement issued Nov. 2.

As of Dec. 14, Wayne County had vaccinated 73 children with two shots and another 135 with their first dose of the vaccine, said Joel Gillie, Wayne County public affairs director. That data reflects only those children who were vaccinated by the Wayne County Health Department, he said.

Parents are having to make the choice whether or not to get their children vaccinated — and it’s not an easy one for many.

The Wilsons

Mom Maegen Wilson said she, her husband, Scott, and 11-year-old son, Eli, sat down together and talked about Eli getting his shot.

“We leaned that way the entire time, but once the trials were finished and the results showed it was effective for children, we decided we wanted to go ahead and get him that shot,” Maegen said.

A big factor behind that decision, she said, was having lost several friends to COVID-19. And the Wilsons have people who are close to them who are immunosuppressed. The Wilsons thought getting their vaccinations, as well as getting Eli vaccinated, would help keep those around them safe.

“I think it was just (that) I was ready,” Eli said about wanting to get the shot. “I just didn’t want to get COVID. And I wanted to go get (the shot) so I didn’t get COVID.”

Eli said he feels safer being around his classmates at school now that he’s had his shots.

“It’s more safer for me and other people,” he said.

Getting her son vaccinated against COVID wasn’t a quick decision for Maegen.

“We did research,” she said. “I actually have a master’s (degree) in library science and I do research every day. So I did very thorough research. I talked to his health care provider. I talked to a couple health care providers. And everyone agreed that it is a safe vaccine.”

Maegen did research on several government websites, including the CDC, about children getting the vaccine.

“If the clinical trials had shown it wasn’t safe, we absolutely would not have done it,” she said. “But because they were safe and my husband and I had both been vaccinated without any issue, we felt like it was an OK choice for Eli.

“We try to keep up with the ever-changing news and information as it comes out. But we really focus on making sure that we are looking at credible information and not getting our news off things like social media and from friends. And we talk to an actual medical provider.”

Maegen and Scott both got their shots in March and had very minimal side effects for just a day.

“We talked about the vaccine with Eli before getting him his,” Maegen said. “We’ve talked to him all along and have been very open and honest with him about the virus and about the vaccine.

“And we feel that it’s our responsibility to help keep other people safe. He agreed with that. He’s been on board since the very beginning.”

Eli has received both his vaccinations, Maegen said.

“I anticipate he will get his booster when it’s time,” she said — but that’s after she’s done research on the booster for children and gets advice from Eli’s medical provider.

When Eli got his shots, he was a little tired with a little bit of a headache.

“He just felt a little puny for one day and that was it,” Maegen said.

The Wilson family feels a little safer having gotten their shots, although they’ve still been very careful since the pandemic began.

“We’ve worn our masks, washed our hands and mostly stayed home whenever we could,” Maegen said.

“But we were actually able to take a vacation together (recently) and that was a lot of fun. We’re able to get out and about, just knowing that we’re protected from it and that we’ve also helped protect our family and friends from it as well.”

She said there was never a point where her family thought maybe they shouldn’t have gotten the COVID vaccine.

“We’ve all three had very minimal side effects,” Maegen said. “We felt like the reward outweighed the risk. Feeling a little sick for a day seems like a much better choice than having long-haul COVID or being in the hospital for months or dying.

“Or even when people never went to the hospital, they’ve struggled with issues from COVID for months. We don’t want to do that.”

Eli said his COVID shots felt like the flu shot.

“I felt the needle for a second and that’s all,” he said. “With the first shot, I was just tired and had a headache. With the second shot, I also had a headache and I was a little tired.

“I feel good about getting the shot knowing I’m protecting other people.”

And Eli’s parents feel better about him being in school with other children, knowing that’s he had his shots. His family is happy that he got the shot, too.

“I think our extended family did a very good job of trying to keep Eli safe before he had his shot,” Maegen said. “Now that he is vaccinated, he’s the last member of our family to be vaccinated. I think everybody just feels a little bit more relief knowing that.”

She said she’s been very fortunate that a lot of her friends are getting their children vaccinated, too.

“But I know some people who are not,” Maegen said. “And I’m being respectful of that choice.

“I think honestly the key to that is to just stay off social media. I think that that’s the important thing in this time. People can sometimes be meaner on social media than in person. That’s how we’ve really made it through the past year. But people have their right to their opinion.”

The Johnsons

Erica Johnson and her husband have decided not to get their three children vaccinated until a little more information is available about possible long-term effects.

“We’re leaning toward not getting them vaccinated though, just because all three of them were preemies and all of them had RSV (respiratory viral disease), which is common in infants,” she said. “But it can lead to later issues with breathing. And COVID affects breathing.”

So for now, Dillon and Logan, 9, and Marielle, 11, are unvaccinated.

“One of them, Logan, has really bad asthma,” Erica said. “He already is on a controlled medicine with an inhaler. He’s already had an asthmatic episode last year, which kept him out of school for over a week.

“So, we’re just very hesitant when it comes to that because we don’t know what the reactions are going to be for the kids.”

Erica said she and her husband have been reading information about the vaccine online from credible sources and what it could possibly do to children with breathing conditions. She’s finding that in some cases, it makes it worse, and in other cases, it may not affect them at all.

Both of her sisters are nurses, one of whom works on the COVID-19 floor at her hospital and the other who is director of nursing at her hospital. Erica has had some pretty in-depth conversations with them about children getting the vaccine.

Erica said she and her husband are not against the COVID shot, but want to wait until there have been more studies done about the vaccine.

“We understand that it has to start somewhere, but with all of them (her children) having had a rough start, we don’t know the effects of how it’s going to affect them long term,” she said. “So we’re very hesitant.”

Erica said she’d like to see even more studies done, maybe a two-year study, on how it will affect their (children’s) bodies when it comes to respiratory illnesses and also studies involving people who have autoimmune disorders.

“It can affect people in different ways,” she said. “We’ve seen that with vaccines, too.

“I’ve been vaccinated, I got the Pfizer, and my husband got the Moderna. How it affected my husband and how it affected me were totally different. Whether that’s differences in the shots or differences in how our bodies responded to things, I don’t know.”

That also makes the couple hesitant about getting their children vaccinated.

“Also, my daughter, when she was a baby and she was getting all of her newborn vaccines and her 1-year-old vaccines, she ended up having some severe reactions to them,” she said. “And the reactions she had, the doctors said it’s so rare. They said it could last for weeks, it could last for months. Luckily it only lasted about two months.

“She ended up getting a rash all over her face, and they had to monitor it to make sure it didn’t affect her heart because that was one of the biggest concerns with the reaction she was having.”

Erica said her daughter and two sons have never had reactions to any other vaccine, and they all get their flu shot every year.

“I’m not against vaccines, but I’m always leery and want to make sure they’re getting them at the right times,” she said.

To protect their children, the family doesn’t go out in public much. And when the children go to school, they wear their masks.

Erica said it’s up to each individual family whether or not to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Everyone needs to do what they feel comfortable with (for) their family,” she said. “If their children are healthy and they feel comfortable doing it, that’s great. And if they’re healthy and they don’t feel comfortable doing it because they don’t want health issues to arise, that’s valid, too.

“At this point, the children are doing what we want them to do, not what they necessarily want to do. They don’t have all the information or can’t focus long enough to get all the information. You sit there and tell all of these effects to a 9-year-old and they’re not going to be paying attention to what you’re saying because it’s boring to them.”

Erica said she’d hate to do anything that affects her children long term that was against what they would have wanted. But she also feels that having those conversations with her children is important. And it also helps bring social awareness to what’s going on.

Erica is a seventh-grade teacher at her children’s school and has seen a lot of children who have been vaccinated and a lot who haven’t.

“I’ve had several of my students catch COVID,” she said. “And some of them were vaccinated. So the vaccine isn’t a cure-all.

“And that’s also the biggest thing, you have to understand that the vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t get COVID. It just helps lessen the effects of COVID.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws against the New York Jets during Sunday’s game in East Rutherford, N.J.

Sheriff's Office plans to add mobile command center

The tragic death of a father and his 5-year-old son in the Neuse River in March highlighted the need for Wayne County to have a mobile command center to respond to area emergencies.

As search and rescue teams worked around-the-clock to find the father, Sterling Holman, and his son, Braylin, having the Johnston County command center near the Neuse River banks helped rescue workers who spent a week combing the Neuse River.

Rescue crews found the Holmans after they drowned in the river, which was estimated to be moving 3 to 4 mph when the Holmans entered the water.

The Wayne County search and rescue team was able to find the Holmans with the help of Johnston County’s Emergency Mobile Command Center.

After taking notice of the benefits of a command center, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office has moved forward to purchase its own unit. The $902,965 purchase was recently approved by the Wayne County Board of Commissioners.

The Dec. 7 approval came less than a month after the General Assembly passed its biennial budget, on Nov. 18, which earmarks $500,000 for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office command center purchase.

Sheriff Larry Pierce said the remaining cost may be paid for with American Rescue Plan funds, but the use of the ARP funding has not been determined.

Pierce said Wayne County needs a command center because there have been multiple times when deputies needed to use Johnston County’s unit to respond to emergencies, including in March during the search and rescue at the Neuse River.

The command center will be equipped with video surveillance equipment, wireless antennas and weather station equipment. Inside the command center will be a conference room as well as multiple work stations that include tablets and computers.

The center is currently being built by LDV Inc. in Burlington, Wisconsin, and expected to be ready by December. Deputies anticipate being able to use the center in early 2023.

The unit will operate as a mobile meeting center. The technology the emergency vehicle offers will allow multiple agencies to set up remote locations and coordinate plans on how to handle emergency situations, such as natural disasters.

The vehicle could be available to the Wayne County Health Department in the case of another pandemic and could be used during a mass vaccination rollout, Pierce said. The unit may also be used a center for emergency readiness training, Pierce said.