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Low turnout during one-stop voting

As of Thursday evening, only 0.33% of the 32,051 people who are eligible to vote in Tuesday’s nonpartisan municipal and sanitary district elections had done so.

That includes 130 who have voted at the county’s single one-stop early voting site at the Wayne County Public Library, 1001 E. Ash St., and three absentee-by-mail ballots.

“I’ve been here since 2014, and this is the slowest I’ve ever seen,” Anne Risku, Wayne County elections director, said Thursday afternoon. “It might increase in the next two days, but even if it doubles, we’re still far below (past turnouts).”

The 13 days of one-stop voting began Oct. 24 and will end at 3 p.m. Saturday. Up until that time, people can do same-day registration and vote.

Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in 19 of the county’s 28 precincts that have elections.

The elections to be decided Tuesday are:

• Belfast-Patetown Sanitary District Board, vote for two: Drew Hill; Fred J. Newcomb; Ray Sullivan; Arrington Anderson; Ben Casey.

• Fork Sanitary District Board, vote for three: Tim Gardner; Andy G. Hartley; Danny Franklin Hope; Henry Braswell.

• Eastern Wayne Sanitary District Board, vote for five: Brandon Gray; Allen Jones; James Allen Sutton Jr.; Ervin Watts; Daryl Anderson; Richard (Ricky) Carraway.

• Southern Wayne Sanitary District Board, vote for two: Matthew McLamb; Gary Scott; Justin Michael Williams; Sally Rawls Bowles.

• Southern Wayne Sanitary District Board, unexpired term ending in 2023, vote for one: Tommy Baker.

• Southeastern Wayne Sanitary District Board, vote for five: Charlie M.B. Holloway; Jesse Jernigan; Debony T. Jones; Bobby Outlaw; Phil Shivar; James Taylor.

• Walnut Creek Councilman, vote for two: Mike Daly; John Seegars.

• Pikeville Mayor: Garrett Johnston. Commissioner, vote for two: Nick Katsenios; David (Matt) Thomas.

• Seven Springs Mayor: Stephen Ray Potter. Commissioner, vote for two: Ronda Hughes; John H. Lee.

Sanitary district board members serve four-year terms. The mayor of Pikeville and the Pikeville town commissioners serve four-year terms. The mayor of Seven Springs serves a two-year term. Town board members in Seven Springs and Walnut Creek serve four-year terms.

The lack of municipal elections in Mount Olive and Eureka could being playing some part in the low turnout, Risku said.

Mount Olive’s election was delayed to determine whether changes in its population warranted redistricting.

The town’s population actually declined by a few hundred, so the town is not going to redistrict.

“It was certified that they didn’t need to redistrict,” Risku said. “That means that their candidates will file during the regular candidate filing period Dec. 6 through the 17th.

“They are going to be on the March primary. So, we’re going to have the partisan primary for all the different contests. So, people in Mount Olive will have a pretty big ballot in March.”

Also missing from the ballot are offices in Eureka. There is no election in that small northeastern Wayne County town because its charter was suspended by the state in 2019.

Elections will not return there until its charter is reinstated, Risku said.

“After last year’s record turnout I expected a little bit more, but it is what it is,” she said. “I think not one voter from the town of Seven Springs has voted (as of Thursday afternoon).

“I think we’ve had one or two from Pikeville and two or three from Walnut Creek that have voted early.”

Most of the early votes by Thursday were for the sanitary districts, Risku said. But even there there’s not much of a contest in any of those elections since for the most part there are just enough candidates for the number of available seats, she said.

The same is true in the Pikeville, Seven Springs and Walnut Creek municipal elections, she said.

“But we’re here. We are ready for 100% (turnout) which would only be 32,051 people who are eligible,” Risku said. “We’ll see what Election Day brings but … I am surprised (the turnout) is so low after last year, after all the interest. I would have thought it would (have) piqued people’s interest, kept them motivated.”

Ballots have spaces for write-ins, and it is not unusual for write-in votes to decide elections in the county’s smaller municipalities, Risku said.

“We will do write-ins (tally) within a few days of the election,” Risku said. “You’ll see a write-in total, just not names corresponding to the write-ins (on election night totals).”

Unofficial totals will be available Tuesday night on the Wayne County Board of Elections website, waynegov.com/783/Board-of-Elections. Sample ballots are located online, too.

“We have an earlier canvass for municipals so we have canvass on the 9th, the following Tuesday,” Risku said. “We only have seven days to canvass this election, but I’m pretty sure we will be OK.

“We should have absentee-by-mail and early voting results right at 7:30 (Tuesday night). We’ve only had three absentee ballots returned for the entire election. So it’s just really slow, but we’re here. We prepare for 100% turnout.”

Voters are not required to show a voter photo ID for Tuesday’s election.

“We have the same COVID protocols that we had last year,” Risku said. “Voters don’t have to wear a mask, officials do. We’re still doing social distancing. We’re still doing limited booths so you have to keep 6 foot in distance.”

During a Thursday training session for precinct officials, Risku reminded precinct officials that the public sometimes comes in and wants to ask a lot of different questions such as redistricting or different things that have nothing to do with the voting process.

“So that’s part of my training today,” she said. “It’s hot topics that we are always somehow being asked.”

Some nonprofit hospitals reaping benefits off patients while providing less care

At a time when North Carolina is ranked as one of the most expensive states for health care in the nation, many nonprofit hospitals are reaping huge profits while providing little in the way of charity care.

That’s according to a report by the N.C. State Health Plan and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. State Treasurer Dale Folwell invited researchers from Johns Hopkins University to extend their national study of hospitals’ charity care spending to North Carolina.

Charity care spending is free or discounted care provided to low-income patients. It is not Medicaid or Medicare.

Folwell held a virtual news conference Wednesday along with Dr. Ge Bai of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Julie Havlak with the State Health Plan to discuss the report, done with data from 2019.

The report found that hospitals took in more than $1.8 billion in tax breaks, while “charity care” spending didn’t surpass 60% of the tax exemption’s estimated value across most of the state’s largest health systems. About 25 of 100-plus nonprofits outspent tax breaks with charity care.

For example, Charlotte’s Atrium Health charity care spending equaled less than 60% of its tax exemption. At the same time, the system grew its net position by $585.2 million and achieved $8.4 billion in unrestricted reserves in 2020. Novant Health, which has a presence in North Carolina, had charity care spending at about 55% of its tax exemption. Duke had under 60%. Wake Med stood out, with its charity care spending coming in at 1.25% more than its tax exemption.

Folwell stressed they weren’t talking about the doctors or nurses who provide health care but the “multimillion-dollar executives who run the multibillion-dollar nonprofits.”

“We aren’t talking about a company that makes software or makes widgets. All that profit was made on the back of a sick person. To put it into context, the money in reserves is nearly twice as much as the long-term debt of the state of North Carolina,” he said.

He said the hospitals only report 1% to 2% of profit but make billions. It comes at a time when one in five families has medical debt in collections, and the State Health Plan faces its own economic challenges.

“The State Health Plan is on an unsustainable course as far as health care costs going up faster than the appropriations in the State Health Plan,” Folwell said.

“We need audible and accountable benchmarks going forward for charitable care spending. We have a cartelization of health care in North Carolina over the last 40 years,” Folwell said. He says there may be less charity care and higher profits when all of the information from the pandemic is determined months from now. The SHP currently has nearly 750,000 participants.

Bai reiterated that being nonprofit doesn’t mean the hospital systems don’t make money. She said they are called nonprofit because of their tax-exempt status. They receive billions of tax exemptions each year. They don’t pay federal, state or local property taxes. They also accept tax-deductible donations from donors and issue tax-exempt bonds, which reduce hospitals’ borrowing costs. The exemptions are primarily expected to subsidize the cost of charity care.

“Why should taxpayers continue to subsidize these nonprofit hospitals and why should local communities be deprived of their property tax revenues and other revenues to fund schools, parks, etc.?” she said.

“Many of these entities are the largest users of zoning in their communities,” Folwell said. “The three biggest taxes to focus on are sales, property and income tax (of which they are exempt). These big nonprofits get a sales tax refund while the local school districts of North Carolina do not. Does that make any sense?”

Bai said hospitals could put excess profits into reserves. There aren’t any guidelines on how much they can put into reserves. There are no shareholders or stakeholders in a nonprofit. There is no one to answer to.

A reporter asked to what extent would expanding Medicaid in North Carolina reduce the need for hospitals to provide charity care. Folwell said while the subject of expanding Medicaid is between the governor and lawmakers, he cited a report in Politico that said in states where Medicaid was expanded, the profit of nonprofit hospitals exploded, while charity care went down.

Ironically, there was a key finding in the report.

“Many for-profit hospitals provide charity care than nonprofit hospitals in terms of a total expense,” Bai said. “It’s not clear while we look at the comparison why the nonprofit hospitals receive so much subsidy at the same time while they provide less charity care than for-profit hospitals.”

“Everyone knows that something is wrong with health care,” said Folwell. “On behalf of those who teach, protect, and otherwise serve, we are trying to figure out what is right, get it right and keep it right for the financial solvency of our State Health Plan.”

Parks joins United Way as community investment, engagement director

Pilar Parks is the new community investment and engagement director for United Way of Wayne County.

Parks, who began on Oct. 18, will promote community engagement, promote local partner agencies and help manage the United Way’s grant process. She will also be involved in connecting volunteers to area needs.

The United Way supports 20 programs through 14 local agencies with community grants from the annual community campaign fund.

Prior to taking the job with United Way, Parks worked in the Department of Social Services as a child support agent for six years in Wayne County. Parks also worked in the hotel industry for 12 years where she was the general manager of the Hampton Inn and the Best Western in Goldsboro.

Parks said she was interested in working for the United Way because she believes it is making a difference in people’s lives.

“After I left the hotel industry I was thinking about the type of job I wanted to be involved in, and always I wanted to do something that would make a difference in somebody’s life,” Parks said. “I thought (this job) might line up with my experience, because in the hotel industry I wore so many different hats, and I thought that can translate here.”

Parks, a longtime resident of Wayne County, attended Wayne Community College where she earned her associate degree in business. After her time at Wayne Community College, Parks transferred to North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount where she graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in business.

Parks takes over for Rachel Rhodes, who held the same position for two years. Rhodes, a familiar face of the United Way, decided to return to the legal field where she worked prior to working for nonprofits, said Sherry Archibald, United Way of Wayne County executive director.

Archibald said Rhodes made the transition easy for United Way before leaving and that she will be missed.

“Rachel actually helped me get things posted before she left,” Archibald said. “We started looking for applicants very soon after she left, and it’s just a process of finding the right person, and it’s been right at two months.”

Archibald also said she thinks Parks is the right person to take over for Rhodes because of her experience and her leadership qualities.

“On paper it was a lot of the customer service experience that I thought would translate,” Archibald said. “In person, I though Pilar had a calm leadership about her that I thought would be accepting and welcoming to our community partners.”