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State auditor to investigate Goldsboro finances

The city of Goldsboro’s finances are coming under increased scrutiny from the state.

The N.C. Department of the Treasurer has enlisted Beth Wood, state auditor, to conduct an audit of the city’s finances.

The decision to bring Wood in to examine the city’s books was made by Dale Folwell, state treasurer, who said the purpose of the investigation is to find out why the city’s audits have been late for so many years.

The announcement, confirming Wood’s involvement in examining the city’s finances, came Wednesday, two days after 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, addressed the city’s ongoing trend of presenting late audits during the Goldsboro City Council meeting.

“It is troubling that the state’s 30th largest city, the county seat and home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, no less, has been unable to get its act together to conduct a basic but critical oversight function,” Folwell said. “Audits are necessary to assess financial well-being, to ensure bills are being paid and money is not missing.

“Hardworking Goldsboro taxpayers deserve to know their elected and appointed officials uphold the highest standards as stewards of public funds. That confidence is lacking at this point, so I am asking State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate the city’s books and financial statements. We stand ready, willing and able to assist her staff, the city administration and elected officials in this process, and to make sure all records are properly preserved for examination.”

Folwell told the News Argus Wednesday the Local Government Commission, a state agency that oversees local government budgets, audits and debt management, is not considering taking over the city’s finances.

“There is no consideration by staff at this time for a recommendation that the LGC assume control of the finances of the city,” he said. “We are never interested in taking over any city’s finances. We are interested in partnering with them to figure out what’s right and keeping it right for the taxpayers of that community.”

The city has failed to submit audits for 2020 and 2021, and its 2019 audit — that was 19 months late to the LGC — contained multiple bookkeeping adjustments to capital assets and notes receivables, according to Folwell.

Some adjustments are common because of an audit but significant adjustments may signal major weaknesses in day-to-day fiscal management, Folwell said.

Folwell requested Wood’s office investigate Goldsboro’s fiscal records due to concern that city finances may be in disarray and vulnerable to mismanagement and misappropriation, Folwell said. Folwell noted the work of the Goldsboro finance director in his Wednesday announcement.

“We are very appreciative of Finance Director Catherine Gwynn’s efforts at resolving these issues,” Folwell said. “However, the longer audits are missing, the higher the odds are that there are internal financial control issues. If there are internal control issues, the potential for waste, fraud and abuse increases.”

Mayor David Ham said city staff and elected officials will cooperate with staff from the Office of the State Auditor during the process.

“I was informed (Wednesday) morning that N.C. Treasurer (Dale) Folwell has requested State Auditor Beth Wood conduct an audit of the city’s finances,” Ham said.

“At this time, we haven’t received any communication from Mrs. Wood’s office. Should she proceed with the audit, we will cooperate fully in providing whatever information is requested.”

Tim Salmon, Goldsboro city manager, said staff is committed to working through any concerns noted by Wood’s staff.

“The city has not received communication from Auditor (Beth) Wood’s office,” Salmon said.

“If and when we do, the city is fully committed to addressing all concerns.”

Edmundson said during Monday’s city council meeting that the LGC is requiring the state to enter into a Fiscal Accountability Agreement due to the city’s audits being late. The agreement requires the city to send its financial documents to the LGC on a regular schedule so the state can keep track of the city’s finances, as the city works to complete its audits, she said.

Folwell said he expects the LGC to have the agreement ready to send to city officials by the end of the week. The agreement includes a timeline for the city to send its documents to the LGC, Folwell said.

“We are asking for an eight-month year to date budget to actual report due to us on March 15, 2022, and a nine-month year to date budget to actual report due on April 15, 2022,” Folwell said.

“We also are asking for a copy of the draft budget to be submitted to us for review by May 16, 2022. We will determine if additional documents are needed after those documents are reviewed.”

Fiscal audits are due to the Local Government Commission each year by Oct. 31. The city’s fiscal year 2019-20 audit is past due and, as a result, the fiscal year 2020-21 is expected to be late, with the potential of the city’s fiscal year 2021-22 being late, Edmundson told council Monday.

Edmundson told council the trend of having late audits needs to change and recommended city officials set a timeline and possibly hire staff to assist in getting the city’s financial records back on track.


Local
Face masks required at 15 public schools

After a vote by the Wayne County Board of Education earlier this week on new masking rules, 15 of Wayne County’s 32 schools are requiring students, staff, and visitors to wear masks in the buildings as of Tuesday.

Charles B. Aycock High, Eastern Wayne Elementary, Greenwood Middle, Mount Olive Middle, Northeast Elementary, Northwest Elementary, Spring Creek Middle and Wayne School of Engineering schools are among those schools masking up once again.

Others include Brogden Primary, Carver Elementary, Fremont Elementary, Grantham Elementary, Grantham Middle, Meadow Lane Elementary and Norwayne Elementary.

Wayne County Board of Education members, in a 4-2 vote Monday, made masking for COVID-19 mandatory at each school if the school has an 8% or higher exclusion rate of the school population.

Making the motion, board member Craig Foucht explained that the exclusion rate equals the total number of students and staff on isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 divided by the total student and staff population at the school.

In his motion, Foucht said that the mask status will be decided on a school-by-school basis.

“Masks will be optional if a school has less than 8% exclusion rate,” he said. “If an individual school has 8% or more of the students and staff excluded (due to COVID), then the masks will be required inside of the building for a period of no less than 10 school days.

“Masks will be optional at the end of the two weeks once the exclusion rate drops below 8%.”

Foucht said that 8% is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold, and that when that number is between 8% and 10%, COVID can be transmitted more easily.

The masking rule doesn’t apply to school buses, as the CDC has mandated that masks be worn on school buses at all times by students and drivers.

The motion passed, with board members Len Henderson and Patricia Burden voting in opposition.

The board made its masking decision after Ken Derksen, Wayne County Public Schools executive director for community engagement and student and family support, presented statistics on the current COVID situation in the schools for the 2021-22 school year, from Aug. 6 through Jan. 9.

“The last three board reports I have given you, we’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to watch community metrics decline, which has directly impacted the impact of COVID-19 within our school setting,” Derksen said.

“Today I wish we could say that we’re continuing the decline, but all of you have been watching the news, there are a lot of challenges just in the last week that we’ve experienced as a result of COVID. If you were to take a temperature check in our school buildings, it would feel very much like September.”

Derksen said it’s a challenging situation because the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is highly contagious. He also said more exposure is expected than what has been seen so far from the delta variant.

Showing data from the 2½ weeks leading up to the holiday season and last week, Derksen said the majority of COVID cases schools are seeing have been in the week coming out of the holiday break.

“That’s important to understand,” he said. “As you look at the data, you need to think of what’s it going to look like in the next week or two at the rate that we’re going. I think it’s safe to say that we can expect greater impacts from omicron than we saw with delta.

“It’s more contagious. We know that as the community spread increases, you’re going to see greater impacts to facilities like our schools. We’ve seen increases in secondary cases. And we believe as we see more exposures, we’ll see more secondary cases. And that was true of delta as well.”

Derksen said past trends in a nonmasking situation show that Wayne County Public Schools can anticipate more primary and secondary cases to occur in the school as the omicron surge continues to increase in the community.

“In the absence of a universal masking policy, WCPS can also anticipate greater numbers of students and staff having to be excluded than previously experienced during the delta surge,” he said. “This is in large part due to increased on-campus exposures and decreased masking exemptions being applied.”

Derksen said if the schools transition to a universal masking setting, WCPS could expect a greater number of students and staff to be exempt from quarantine as the omicron surge increases.

“Additionally, new state guidance will allow greater numbers of students/staff exposed outside of school to be excluded from quarantine with testing requirements,” he said.

“Most important as you consider your decision this evening, CDC statistics for Wayne County, cases are up in Wayne County over the last seven days. It’s the highest number reported over the past three months that I’ve shared these charts. The new hospital admissions is also a number that’s gone up.”

Derksen said WCPS is still tracking the same reasons for exclusion of students and staff:

• COVID positive primary cases contracted outside of school.

• COVID positive secondary cases contracted after being named a close contact with someone at school.

• Symptomatic.

• Named as a close contact of a COVID positive individual at school, without appropriate masking or vaccinations.

• Named as a close contact of a COVID positive individual outside of school, not vaccinated.

• Named as a close contact of a COVID positive individual during athletics or extracurricular activities, not vaccinated.

At the beginning of the meeting, Shonta Edwards, a parent of five children, spoke about the need for masking in all schools at all times.

She said three of her children have breathing and respiratory problems and other health issues.

“My first child that goes to Norwayne caught COVID the second day of school,” Edwards said. “She’s on medicine, but can’t smell or taste still.”

Another one of her children who goes to Northeast Elementary School caught COVID at school back in November.

“The school didn’t tell me to get her tested, but a student from her school who tested positive called my daughter and said, ‘I have COVID. You need to tell everyone in the class to go get tested.’

“I take my daughter to get tested and my daughter is positive for COVID. I go to the school. The principal told me they were unaware that a child had COVID, and they didn’t know anything about it.”

Edwards said her daughter gave the virus to her 3-year-old. And Edwards said she herself had COVID three times.

“It spread through my house like wildfire,” she said.

Edwards told board members that she wanted masks to be mandatory in the schools.


Local
County seeks expanded state grant for new Fremont school

Wayne County will apply to the state lottery commission for expanded grant funding for the new Fremont Elementary School while seeking restoration of forfeited lottery funding.

The Wayne County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to pursue the modified grant funding. The Wayne County Board of Education voted Monday in favor submitting the new funding application.

Before the commissioners’ vote, Wayne County Manager Craig Honeycutt reviewed the process that led to the new funding application.

The county approved an application Jan. 19, 2021, for a Needs Based Public School Capital Fund grant from the North Carolina Education Lottery Commission. The original grant was approved, with a maximum of $15 million and a local match of $5 million.

“Part of this grant award included that the county would not receive its lottery funding for a period of five years,” Honeycutt said. The grant was awarded in April 2021.

The county modified its agreement with Wayne County Public Schools on Sept. 21, 2021, to state that the guaranteed maximum price for the school would be at or below $23 million.

“This meant that Wayne County has committed for the Fremont Elementary School construction project $8 million toward construction, plus the loss of lottery funds of approximately $6 million over the next five years,” Honeycutt said.

New provisions in the state budget affecting the Needs Based Public School Capital Fund now allow a maximum $30 million award, along with a 5% local match of $1.5 million, as long as construction has not begun on the project, Honeycutt said.

“In working with our legislative delegation and Wayne County school board, we would like to reapply for this grant under the new funding guidelines since no construction has begun on the project,” Honeycutt said. “This would not change the scope of the original Fremont Elementary School project, but allow us to lower our matching funds for the project and to save our lottery funds over the next five years.”

By reapplying, the county is in no danger of losing its current grant award, only supplementing it, Honeycutt said.

Commissioner Barbara Aycock moved to submit the application “so we can save millions of dollars.”

Commissioner Wayne Aycock thanked the school board, school system and county staff “for jumping on this and working on it as quick as you have.”

“I’m excited about this,” said Commissioner Antonio Williams, “because now we can get our lottery funding back that we wouldn’t be able to have for quite some time.”

Chairman Joe Daughtery thanked the school board for “due diligence” in finding out about the funding provision in the newest state budget. He also thanked legislators for recognizing the funding need.

“I hope that we get awarded this,” Daughtery said. “My understanding is that it has precedence over any other application.”

Daughtery said Wayne County had lost its lottery funds for this year and asked the county manager to check on whether those funds would be reinstated.

Barbara Aycock said the school board and the county board had worked well together on seeking the additional funding.

“I think we have formed a partnership, and hopefully when the Rosewood school starts we can continue this partnership,” she said.

The deadline for the latest grant application is March 15 with an anticipated date of award announcements around April 12, said Joel Gillie, Wayne County public affairs director.

Tim Harrell, assistant superintendent of support services with Wayne County Public Schools, provided a brief update on the Rosewood Middle School construction project.

The school system is preparing to start the request-for-qualifications process for selecting an architect or designer for the Rosewood school, Harrell said.

A request for qualifications is generally used in government as a screening step to establish a project’s vendors as part of a two-step process. Responses to a request for qualifications describe a company’s general qualifications to do the project. Companies that qualify are then eligible to submit responses to a request for proposals.

“It’s going to be a unique process because we will be potentially saving part of the building there, the newer building that was built around 2000, maybe the gym, and with the funds that we have trying to be as cost effective as we can,” Harrell said.

The state budget approved in November allocates $20 million for construction at Rosewood Middle School.


FILE - Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis talks with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) before the Super Bowl XL football game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006, in Detroit. The Steelers are hoping to send Roethlisberger out the way Roethlisberger and company sent out Bettis in the 2005 playoffs, with a Super Bowl win. The seventh-seeded Steelers open the playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, at AFC West champion Kansas City. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)


AP
Recusals sought as remapping case moves to NC Supreme Court (copy)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The legal fight over North Carolina's redistricting plans shifted quickly to the state Supreme Court the day after trial judges refused to throw out the new maps. By Wednesday, nearly half of the justices had been asked by lawyers to stay out of upcoming deliberations because of alleged conflicts.

Plaintiffs in the case filed appeal notices with the state's highest court almost immediately after Tuesday's ruling by a three-judge panel that allowed the use of congressional and legislative districts approved the Republican-controlled General Assembly for upcoming elections.

The court already signaled last month to expect a fast-moving hearing schedule. State election officials have said they need final maps in place by mid-February to keep the once-postponed primary election now set for May 17 on time. State law would give legislators two weeks to address any unlawful districts.

Lawyers for Republican legislative leaders asked Wednesday that Associate Justice Anita Earls be recused because of previous ties to groups involved with the plaintiffs. They had already demanded that Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV step away because as the only sitting member running for reelection this year the court's decisions could affect when elections he'll be competing in are scheduled.

And attorneys for a group of voters who challenged the maps repeated late Tuesday their call to remove Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. because his father, Senate leader Phil Berger, is a named defendant and whose district is among those being challenged.

Registered Democrats hold a 4-3 seat advantage on the Supreme Court, so any departure would be significant. Berger is a Republican. Earls and Ervin are Democrats. State law requires at least four justices to conduct business.

Recusals received intense scrutiny in recent months after the state NAACP asked the younger Berger and another Republican justice be disqualified from a case challenging two constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2018. Berger's father also was a lawsuit defendant. One amendment authorized photo voter identification.

Those motions led the court to ask lawyers about the recusal process and whether it should be changed. Ultimately the court boiled down the process in late December to two options: an individual justice can either decide on a motion or ask the rest of the court to do so on their behalf. Last week, Berger and Associate Justice Tamara Barringer separately wrote they could be fair and impartial and wouldn't step aside. Berger noted that his father was a defendant in his official capacity as Senate leader — just like he is in the redistricting litigation.

Lawyers for voters in the remapping case wrote Tuesday the older Berger's involvement in this case is even more personal. They are directly challenging Berger's Senate district as a unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and the success or failure of the statewide Senate map could affect whether a Republican majority continues, they wrote.

“A reasonable observer would not believe that Justice Berger can neutrally resolve a constitutional challenge to the boundaries of the specific district under which his father is elected, and to the districts statewide that determine his father’s leadership position in the General Assembly,” according to the motion.

According to Republican legislative leaders, Earls should be recused because the National Democratic Redistricting Committee endorsed her for justice when she ran in 2018 and has been raising money for redistricting litgation. The NDRC's nonprofit affiliate, the National Redistricting Foundation, has said it's supporting the lawsuit filed by several voters incorporated into this case.

The NDRC's political committee gave to Earls' campaign in 2018 and sent $250,000 that year to the state Democratic Party. The state party also helped with Earls' election bid, according to the motion.

Earls also helped create the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which for years challenged legislation passed by Republicans. She left the coalition to run for justice. Its lawyers are now representing plaintiff Common Cause.

“Because of (Earls') record of public advocacy against the legislative defendants, any reasonable observer would think she could not be anything but partial to the plaintiffs in this case,” the GOP leaders' lawyers wrote.

In a nearly 260-page order, the judges wrote Tuesday the evidence from the plaintiffs’ mathematicians and researchers showed the maps “are a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.” But they said striking down such districts as state constitutional violations were outside the judicial branch’s purview, with redistricting largely in the legislature’s control.


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