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July 29, 2013

Princeville finances much improved, LGC still in charge

TARBORO — PRINCEVILLE — Nearly one year to the day that the state took over the town's finances. officials of the Local Government Commission report that the Town of Princeville's situation has improved significantly, although there is no timetable of when the books might be returned to the municipality.

"Right now, I'm not trying to put any pressure on them because there is still a lot of work that needs to be done," said commissioner Ann Howell. "They're trying to resolve the matter and I know it will take time. "But I believe sometimes in 2014, we can expect to get our books back. I'm asking the citizens to be patient."

 LGC press secretary Schorr Johnson said LGC continues to work towards returning the books, but there is not a definite timetable in place.

The LGC officially impounded the town's books July 30, 2012 due to financial instability, poor bookkeeping and a rash of other intangibles including significant unpaid debt to some vendors. The LGC is pessimistic about its work so for.

"While the finances of the town are still not where they need to be, significant improvements have been made under LGC control," Johnson said. "The payables are current, the budget has been reduced to a more manageable level of spending and the water and sewer system is being well managed by Edgecombe County.

"One year later, there is significant improvement. The town's finances are still not where they need to be, but there is a laying of a strong foundation for fiscal stability in Princeville's future."

Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates and commissioners Calvin Sherrod and Isabelle Purvis-Andrews fought  against the takeover while Howell and Gwen Knight were for it. A few months later, Sherrod publicly acknowledged that the LGC takeover was for the best of the town.

During the first few months of the takeover, perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles that the LGC faced was the town's water and sewer collection rate. Due to a town policy, delinquent water and sewer customers were allowed to pay partial bills — or in some cases nothing at all. The list of delinquent customers grew as well as the individual billings with at least one customer owing $1,500. The LGC immediately tackled the problem by negotiating with Edgecombe County to take over the town's water and sewer system. Since then, collections of receivables have increased by $15,000 to $20,000.

"Clearly, there were significant financial challenges to Princeville one year ago that required the LGC to take over the town's finances," Johnson said. "One area of reform is that LGC staff implemented use of the debt setoff program and has collected over $9,100 of past due water and sewer bills using this service."

 The takeover also consisted of cutting key positions in the town including the town clerk, town manager and finance officer. Two outsiders, Dr. Steve Modlin of ECU and Pat Eglinton, a NCSU graduate student, have volunteered their services to fill some of the void. Sharon Edmundson, director fiscal management sector for LGC, is operating as the town's finance officer.

 "Without having key personnel at the town hall every day, it has been a slow process," Knight said. "But things are coming around. There are still many improvements that need to be made. I will be glad when it's over so that we can get some qualified people back in the town hall."

At least one qualified person is scheduled to be back in town hall in the near future. The LGC reportedly budgeted to fill the town manager vacancy in 2014. Knight's desire for "qualified people back in the town hall" is set to occur sometimes during the beginning of the calendar year.

Since the takeover, Everette-Oates and Purvis-Andrews continue to express their dissatisfaction with LGC. The duo has not attended any of the meetings called by LGC and, at one point, Everette-Oates asked LGC to return the books. At times, Everette-Oates has made ill-tempered remarks against the state agency — even accusing paperwork of disappearing from files following the takeover.

Perhaps one of the findings during the takeover may have triggered those remarks. An audit revealed Everette-Oates and Purvis-Andrews used funds without approval through credit card charges and travel expenses. Both have emphatically denied any wrongdoing and the SBI is investigating the incident.

The takeover is the second time Princeville books were impounded by LGC. In 1997, LGC took the books under the late Mayor Walter Plemmer. The books were retuned in 1998.  Princeville is the oldest town in America charted by blacks.

"Despite all the problems that we've had, we will overcome this just like we've done since the existence of the town," Howell said. "I look forward to a brighter future than what we had a year ago. 2014 is going to be a bombshell to the good things that are going to happen in Princeville.

Attempts to reach Everette-Oates for comments were unsuccessful, as she did not return phone calls or emails.

 

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