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Sunbury safety at stake

GATESVILLE – The Sunbury street lights are on….for now at least.

Despite an outstanding bill and the county’s refusal to pay that past due amount, those street lights remain lit. But for how much longer is anybody’s guess.

The Gates County Commissioners addressed this issue at their regularly scheduled meeting on March 4, even going as far as discussing the use of a state statute that would allow the board to approve a fee assessed against Sunbury property owners to pay the electric bill generated by the use of the street lights.

“The Sunbury Ruritan Club came before us last month requesting the county pay for the (past due bill) lights and if there was a procedure where the county could collect the money. There is a state statute covering this,” said Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler.

Hofler cited GS 153-A-206, a law authorizing local county government to levy special assessments against benefitted property in a residential subdivision within the county and not within a city for the costs of providing street lights. The county may approve such a levy upon petition of at least two-thirds of the owners of the lots within the subdivision.

The estimated costs of providing street lights shall be apportioned among all benefitted property on the basis of the number of lots served, or subject to be served, by the street lights at an equal rate per lot. It’s up to the county to determine the amount of the assessment, which may or may not include estimated costs of providing legal services, projected utility rate increases, and the costs incurred by the county to administer and collect the assessment.

Since Sunbury is not an incorporated town, the county commissioners can act on this matter by using the aforementioned state statute.

Hofler first inquired of what property is now covered in Sunbury by the existing street lights.

“What are the boundary lines,” she asked.

The Gates County Tax Department determined those boundaries in 2010. Then it covered 176 properties, ranging from Tom Perry’s Service Station to the Sunbury Fire Department (from north to south) and from St. John’s Church to the swamp bridge past Beulah Baptist Church (from east to west).

This matter was addressed by the county commissioners in June of 2010. Current board member Henry Jordan was a commissioner at that time and read a letter sent by the board to the Sunbury Ruritan Club.

“Thank you for all the good work you are doing. You are seeking assistance from the county commissioners to maintain the Sunbury street lights through county funding. I submitted to you a copy of NC General Statute 153A-206 and an excel spreadsheet of all the landowners in the Sunbury area served by the streetlights. Once the fee is determined, you can be billed through the tax department on an annual basis,” Jordan read from the nearly five-year-old letter.

Jordan went on to say that the letter referenced a request made to the Sunbury Ruritans, asking them to make an effort to get two-thirds (then 118) of the (then 176) landowners in the spreadsheet to sign the petition for assessing a fee to cover the lights in Sunbury, then the commissioners would agree to proceed with implementing the fee annually through the county’s tax department.

“To my knowledge, they (Sunbury Ruritans) never got back with the commissioners with a signed petition,” Jordan said at last week’s meeting.

Commissioner Ray Freeman III said he contacted Dominion Power in regards to a cost share program they offer.

“They’re supposed to get back with me with more details about that program,” Freeman said.

“I continue to support maintaining the lights within Sunbury as a measure of continued safety,” Jordan remarked. “Without the street lights it’s very unsafe.”

“If this were approved, would all the citizens in the affected area pay for this,” asked Commission Vice Chairman Jack Owens.

“They would be assessed equally for the costs,” Jordan answered. “But the way this statute reads, the first year must be paid in advance and then what is accumulated from that point forward will be held in escrow to pay for subsequent years.”

“So it’s up to us to keep up with this, sort of like what we do for assessments for the fire tax districts and drainage districts in the county,” Owens noted.

“I’m not opposed to this (assessment),” Owens added. “Henry just mentioned that the Sunbury Ruritan Club did not respond to the original request made to them to have the petition signed; perhaps that responsibility falls on us, the county. Should we develop a letter and mail to the 176 property owners on that list, giving them the opportunity to respond to us?”

“I would think they would want an idea of cost,” said Hofler. “And I’m not sure that it’s our responsibility to do it.”

Owens pondered out loud the thought of what if the property owners within another large subdivision came to the county asking about providing street lights.

“For example, the Whitehurst subdivision, there’s a pretty good number of residents out there,” he stated. “If we get involved in Sunbury, we would need to get involved if another part of the county came to us.”

“We would have to offer this to any locality in the county if the property owners there, by majority, agree to cover the costs through a fee assessed by the county,” Jordan remarked. “In Sunbury’s case, I believe the (Sunbury) Ruritan Club should be the vehicle that drives this. I don’t believe the county manager needs to go and post a petition list at public places in Sunbury. They (Sunbury Ruritans) came to us. We need to remind them that this was offered previously and if they want to follow through we will certainly try to get this going again.”

“I agree with Mr. Jordan; we need to respond to them (Sunbury Ruritans); it’s all on them,” said Hofler. “If they want to pass around a petition and gain the necessary signatures then they send that back to us.”

Jordan stated if the petition contains the required two-thirds of the signatures needed, the county, by resolution of the commissioners, can approve an assessment fee levied against the affected property owners. That fee would be assessed equally, even to those who did not sign the petition.

“Just because a resident there says no to signing the petition, then that does not alleviate them from paying the assessment if two-thirds or more said yes,” Hofler stated.

A motion was made by Owens to direct the county manager to respond to the Sunbury Ruritan Club, to include a copy of 2010 letter from the board and accompanying property owner spreadsheet (with updated verification), and ask them respond with a plan of action in regards to circulating the petition, to include contacting Dominion Power in an effort to gain an estimated annual cost of operating the streetlights within the boundary areas previously noted.

That motion was approved without objection.

Based on the numbers provided at the meeting, the Gates County Index estimated that if there remains 176 property owners covered by the Sunbury street lights, an equal share of the monthly cost (without any county administrative fees) would be $2.46 per parcel, or $29.52 per year. Note: those numbers may be on the high side since the outstanding past due bill includes late charges.

In regards to the outstanding bill from Dominion Power (in excess of $3,000 as of Jan. 26), the commissioners refused to pay it.

“Just simply on the grounds of good business, this is not our bill,” said Owens prior to he and the other four commissioners voting in unison to not pay the bill.

“This bill should not be bourn on our other citizens,” said Freeman.

“If you really think about it, this bill doesn’t belong to the Sunbury Ruritan Club,” said Owens. “They have worked hard over the years to keep this street light program running, and then the contributions from the citizens there got so weak that there wasn’t enough money to pay the bill. Perhaps some of the other civic clubs and individuals in the county will come to their aid with donations to help over the past due bill.”

According to the Gates County Index archives, the Sunbury Ruritan Club reached out for help from the Gates County Board of Commissioners in regards to their Streetlight Program in June of 2010. Club members said that for over 50 years, residents and business owners in Sunbury have paid their own way when it came to illuminating this unincorporated town once the sun went down.

At that time, the bill with Dominion Power ran just under $400 per month. In June of 2010, each residence was charged $55 per year and each church and business was charged $85 per year for their share of operating the streetlights.

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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