Accusations unfounded

Published 10:38 am Friday, November 25, 2011

Last in 4-part series

GATESVILLE – The accusations are unfounded.

As the Gates County Index wraps-up its four-part series regarding issues addressed by the county’s local government leadership team, the storyline covers an array of subjects, the most noteworthy being the denial of an accusation that county leaders intercepted grant funds that allegedly were earmarked for renovating the county’s 175-year-old historic courthouse.

The accusation initially surfaced earlier this year at the meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners. It was explained at that time that there was no truth to the accusation as the entity, the Gates County Historical Society, applying for a grant was denied by the Golden Leaf Foundation. Shortly thereafter the county did receive a Golden Leaf grant for the renovation of the Gates County Community Center.

As part of an interview conducted several weeks ago by the Gates County Index, Gates County Manager Toby Chappell addressed the accusation. He supplied the Index with a copy of a March 9, 2007 letter from Valeria L. Lee, President of the Golden Leaf Foundation Board of Directors, sent to Edith Seiling of the Gates County Historical Society.

“Thank you once again for submitting a grant proposal for your project, ‘Old Gates County Courthouse West Wing Repairs’,” Lee wrote in her letter. “Our Board of Directors and staff appreciate the opportunity we have had to learn more about your organization’s work and we recognize the time and effort invested in preparing the application. Unfortunately, Golden Leaf is unable to extend a grant to your organization for this project in this funding cycle.”

The letter went on to encourage the Gates County Historical Society to consider Golden Leaf as a potential funding source in the future.

Apparently, that has not occurred to date. According to the Golden Leaf Foundation web site (, only two grants have been awarded to an entity in Gates County since 2000, the year the Foundation began awarding financial assistance. Those two grants were:

2007 Community Assistance Initiative for $60,000 to pay for professional engineering services to identify and evaluate two strategic locations and establish estimated budgets for permitting and construction of waste water treatment and disposal facilities in Gates County.

2008 Community Assistance Initiative in the amount of $780,780 to repair, renovate and expand the Gates County Community Center and its facilities.

“There is an individual and/or a group that makes hysterical allegations in the public on a routine basis that are most always false,” Chappell said. “They have made a particular allegation that I feel the need to immediately set straight.

“The allegation was that the county was awarded a grant many years ago to renovate the (old) courthouse and the county took the money from the (Gates County) Historical Society and used that to renovate the (Gates County) Community Center. The money we received from Golden Leaf to renovate the Community Center was part of their Community Assistance Initiative program that the county applied for and Golden Leaf awarded to Gates County.”

Chappell explained that Golden Leaf has obligated itself to put a certain amount of money into each county and solicits information from each county’s local government leaders in an effort to decide which projects are worthy of funding.

“I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with the decision made by our board of commissioners at that time, but they decided the best use of that money was to renovate the Community Center,” Chappell said. “That renovation project has been very successful, there are many great programs now offered at the Center, a new ViQuest (fitness center) and a skate park….there are many things there now that weren’t available prior to the county receiving that grant from Golden Leaf.”

He added, “To say that the commissioners took the money from the Historical Society and used it at the community center is obviously false. I just handed you a copy of a letter from Golden Leaf to our local Historical Society that states they were never awarded any Golden Leaf money.”

“This issue keeps surfacing and there are some individuals pointing fingers at the commissioners for taking this (Historical Society) money and using it at the Community Center and they believe that’s the reason why the old courthouse has not been renovated,” said Graham Twine, chairman of the Gates County Board of Commissioners.

“This false information is coming from that small group of individuals that loves to keep things stirred up and keep this incorrect information out there in the public’s eye,” Chappell stressed. “There are also very credible people in our county that for some reason have this same erroneous belief. I want to take this opportunity to quell both sides of this.

“I want to make it emphatically clear that everybody knows that the Historical Society and the old courthouse were not slighted by one penny because of the commissioners’ decision to renovate the Community Center,” Chappell continued. “The Historical Society applied for a grant, which Golden Leaf evaluated and decided not to fund it. Would we have liked to see it funded, sure we would.”


Capital improvements forthcoming

As far as what’s on the county’s radar screen as far as capital improvement projects, Twine said repairs to the current courthouse topped that list.

“We have budgeted this year to repair the wall in the court room, put down new carpet, install new tile and to have a new roof installed to stop the leaks at the courthouse,” Twine said. “We’re also in the process of having a new heating and cooling system installed at the county’s administration building (adjacent to the new courthouse).”

Twine continued, “We’ve got to put plans in place now that will keep these buildings usable 20 years from now. Next year we’ll look at some other projects.”

“I think it’s smart of the commissioners to do it that way,” Chappell said. “They have made a commitment to put some money aside each year and knock out three or four projects instead of waiting to fix everything at one time. Over a period of five to 10 years we should have these projects completed.”

“I must note that these repair projects this budget year will be completed without a tax increase,” Twine noted. “We have not had a tax increase since our reevaluation year (three years ago). We’ve been able to cut some costs to the point where we’ll be able to put money in our fund balance.”

“We’ve been able to trim costs without county employee furloughs, lay-offs or a reduction in our employee benefits,” Chappell said. “As a matter of fact we have implemented a merit based pay system that rewards our higher performing employees so we can start doing the things to encourage higher levels of performance.”

“That merit system has been in place for two years now and it’s having a positive effect on the county without having to increase taxes to pay for it,” Twine stated. “We’ve added a couple of part-time positions this year that we didn’t have before. By using those part-timers it reduces the need for full-time positions and thus lowers our operating costs.”

As part of the ongoing improvement projects at county-owned buildings, Chappell said there is a plan in place that spends a couple of thousand dollars per year for exterior beautification.

“We’re going to eat the elephant one bite at the time,” Chappell said. “That kind of long-range, strategic thinking by the commissioners is what will allow us to do some of things that need to be done and do it without hopefully having to increase the tax rate.”


Commissioners commended

As a whole, Twine praised the work of the commissioners, despite the fact that the board’s overall experience is limited to five years and less.

“There’s been some change in the mindset of our board,” he said. “We’ve taken a whole different attitude to economic development. We’ve trying to increase our tax base while keeping costs down. That’s what we have to do to keep this county moving forward.”

“I recently read a report from the John Locke Foundation that addressed the per capita taxing of each citizen in each county and Gates County was the lowest per capita taxed county in the entire state,” Chappell said. “There’s something to be said for that. We also have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Do all of our citizens work inside the county, no. I’d love to see more work in our county. We’re going to address that step by step and the first step is the sewer project (US 158 across from the high school). That development will bring jobs and keep more tax money in our county.”

“We’ve done a lot of homework to get to this point,” Twine said. “We’ve hired the right people, we hired a grant writer and it’s been well worth the money and we stayed within our budget.”

“Our tax rate a couple of years ago was the second highest in the state at 97.5 cents,” Chappell noted. “We’re now at 64 cents and ranked 48th or 49th in the state. The commissioners need to be commended for that. I know there’s a small group of people that will not support the commissioners, but the fact is they’ve done a lot to improve Gates County in the short time I’ve been here and I see a bright future for all of us.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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