First strike

Published 10:27 am Thursday, September 14, 2017

AHOSKIE – Seeing is believing.

Standing before a special bulletin board that displayed the more than $21 million of debt service for the town, Ahoskie Town Manager Kerry McDuffie showed the Town Council, and those attending the Council meeting here Tuesday night, not merely what’s owed but the projects undertaken that have led to the town’s shortfall.

Town Clerk Joleatha Chestnutt had prepared the colorful display in advance for the meeting. It showed debts ranging from loans for everything from upgraded facilities to public works projects.

Ahoskie Mayor Jimmie Rowe proudly displays “PAID” on a makeshift bulletin board at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting. The town’s payoff of its $159,000 loan – one of 21 it has – is the initial step in reducing Ahoskie’s $21 million debt service. The board is on display to the public at Council chambers in the Ahoskie Fire Department. | Staff Photo by Gene Motley

“Normally when it comes to debt you try to keep things quiet, and just don’t say a whole lot about it,” McDuffie said as he strode to the board to begin his presentation. “As much debt as we’ve got and as much of a problem as this is for the town of Ahoskie, I think it’s important that we have something other than just a piece of paper in the back of a packet for folks to see.

“There are 21 debts right now as of July 1st,” he noted, pointing randomly at each one. “And this shows how much the town owes on these 21 items. We are going to work to start trying to pay this off, and we’re going to start with some of the smaller amounts.”

Those totals on the board ranged from a $73,000 loan with PNC bank for water meters to the nearly $8.9 million owed on the town’s upgraded Wastewater Treatment Plant.  McDuffie said the combined minimum payment due was $1.9 million annually on the total of $21,273,000.

“If we pay the minimum payment on every one of these, it will actually be paid off on Sept. 11, 2057,” he acknowledged.

“This is a problem, folks,” he deadpanned.

The Town Manager is proposing paying off the smaller amounts and then using the surplus to begin paying of the next smallest and so forth up the line.

“Once we take care of about 14 of these, then we could have about a million dollars a year that we could start putting against these bigger ones,” he said. “You start adding that up and in about 10-12 years we pay off everything if we get serious and keep this in front of us.”

McDuffie said he was also recommending to Council that no more loans be taken out; everything would now be paid in cash. He then said he had found a grant from the USDA where the town qualifies for 55 percent grant money up to $50,000 on the purchase of some law enforcement equipment.

“And if we take that grant money, then the matching part has to be a loan, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pay it off six months down the road,” he proposed.  “I’m willing to take out a $41,000 loan if we get $91,000 worth of police cars, and we can do that.”

McDuffie said the grant application must be re-applied for annually, but he pledges to do that.

A silver lining he figures could come if the town decides to ‘push pause’, as he referred it, and do more than pay-off debt, but also use the funds for other projects such as building a new library.

The climax to the presentation was Mayor Jimmie Rowe stepping up and removing from the board the nearly $160,000 loan for capital equipment.  Underneath in bright red boldface letters was displayed the word “PAID”.

“And it won’t be long before we’re going to be pulling some more off,” chirped McDuffie. “And that will build some momentum to free us from some of this debt.”