By Richard Sullins |

Three of the seven Lee County Commissioners were absent Monday as the board met, but the four in attendance listened silently as County Manager Dr. John Crumpton shared grim numbers about the spread of COVID-19 through the county and its impact on services.

Crumpton said 27 county employees were out of work on Monday, either because they had come down with the virus or were quarantined after being exposed. He said the city of Sanford had 31 employees out of work on the same day due to COVID.

Earlier Monday, the firm contracted by the city to provide trash and recycling collection, GFL Environmental, notified the city that more than 20 of its workers were unable to report to work due to COVID and that delays in solid waste collection and disposal should be expected for the next several days.

The county’s 10,000th case of the virus was reported on December 22 and the number of cases has soared since then. More than 1,500 cases have been reported in 19 days between then and January 10, bringing the total now to 11,511 since the pandemic began in March 2020. Crumpton said more than 600 cases were reported just over the weekend.

More than one-third of all COVID tests done during the past seven days – 34.29 percent – returned positive. That compares to a percentage of 3.13 that were positive just two months ago.

The Lee County Board of Education meets Tuesday night to again reconsider its current masking policy for students, teachers, staff, and visitors. On Monday, 31 students and 12 staff members were out after testing positive for the virus, while another 70 students and three staff members were quarantined after exposure. Given the numbers, a change in the policy seems unlikely.

Budget season set to begin

State law requires counties maintain a balanced budget that is adopted before June 30 of each year. Commissioners approved the first step in that process for the 2022-23 fiscal year Monday by adopting a schedule of deadlines and targeted meeting dates that will allow the county to comply with the mandates in the General Statutes.

The budget kick-off session with the county manager and department heads will take place on January 25, a few days before commissioners have their planning retreat on January 27 and 28 to set overall goals for the coming year. Final budget requests from county departments are due on March 7 and from non-county organizations by March 25.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the board have indicated they’d like to see a further reduction in the property tax rates, and an indication of how likely that might be could come as early as April 15 when the estimated tax valuation is due from the county’s tax administrator.

The Board of Education’s budget request will be due by May 13 and the commissioners will begin public working sessions on all requests on May 16. If the plan holds, a public hearing on the budget will be held June 6 at the McSwain Center and a final vote taken June 20 at the Dennis Wicker Civic Center.

Vehicles for sheriff’s office

The commissioners authorized Crumpton and newly appointed interim Sheriff Brian Estes to pursue the purchase of four Dodge Durango-type vehicles. The original plan developed by former Sheriff Tracy Carter called for four Dodge Chargers, but deputies in Lee County and across the state have reported that vehicles with low clearance often encounter performance issues in rural areas.

Like other sectors of the economy, the automotive industry is dealing with shortages of parts, as well as labor because of the Omicron variant of COVID. To ensure the vehicles can be obtained as quickly as possible, the commissioners authorized Crumpton and Estes to look at other options as well, including Ford Explorers and Chevrolet Tahoes. All three vehicle types are available for purchase on state contract.

Magneti Marelli property now in county hands

Dr. Crumpton also told the Commissioners that Magneti Marelli ended all its operations at the company’s former facility at 2101 Nash Street as of December 26. The county has taken possession of all five buildings on the property, with an eye toward the eventual transference of the property to Central Carolina Community College.

The next step in that process is the cleanup of industrial and hazardous waste and on December 22, a hazardous materials permit was transferred into Lee County’s name. Crumpton said county staff members are working with a consulting firm, Terraquest Environmental Consultants of Mebane, to develop a final cleanup plan that will need to be approved by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

Lee County acquired the 22 acres of property last summer. CCCC has announced plans to use the land and buildings to “relocate and expand manufacturing type training programs and workforce development. Relocation of programs on the main campus will allow room to renovate existing facilities for Lee Early College and for expansion of the library.”

Design work on what the new interiors of the buildings will look like can begin as soon as the cleanup phase is completed. A walk-through tour of the facilities for commissioners and trustees of the college is being planned for February.

Equity Task Force report rescheduled

A report to the commissioners by the Sanford Equity Task Force was removed from the agenda because some of its members were out of town. The report was rescheduled to the commission’s next meeting on January 24.