By Richard Sullins |

In a fashion not unlike the Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities,” County Manager Dr. John Crumpton gave a dim, but still hopeful, update on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on essential services to the Lee County Board County Commissioners Monday night. The virus’ Omicron variant arrived just before the Christmas holidays and impacted the ability of the county to conduct essential functions like the hit of a major hurricane.

At Crumpton’s last report to the board on January 4, 27 County workers were either out sick with the virus or at home because of potential exposure to it. County offices were closed on January 21 because of the impending winter storm but if the offices been open that day, 47 employees would have been out-of-work because of the virus. As of Monday, that number had been reduced to 22 persons out sick or quarantined because of exposure.

That decrease by approximately half of the number out last Friday on sick leave gave Crumpton reason for some degree of optimism that the latest and worst surge of the virus among employees was beginning to recede.

“Hopefully, we’ve kind of hit the crest and are on the downswing. And we hope to stay on the downswing,” he said.

The latest variant has only fueled the COVID virus in reaching its worst and most stratospheric levels so far. The county’s 10,000th case was recorded on December 22 and 1,511 more cases were reported to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services by January 10.

Since Sunday, January 23, 885 more cases have been reported and a total of 14,530 cases have been reported since the first case arrived in Lee County in March 2020. The highest number of cases in North Carolina reported yesterday was in Franklin County with 435. Those numbers do not include, however, the number of home test kits that may have been used without the results actually having been reported.

The upshot of all those numbers is this: 2,699 cases of the COVID-19 virus have been reported and confirmed within the County in the past 14 days, meaning that the illness is being spread quicker than at any time since arriving in the County almost two years ago. Even worse, it is spreading faster than it was just a week ago.

The Health Department has also scheduled its next COVID vaccination clinic for Tuesday, February 8, at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center from 9 until 11 am, with future clinics on the calendar for February 22 and March 8. Lee County Health Director Heath Cain says only 21 percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated.

Equity Task Force report heard

The commissioners also heard the findings Monday night of Sanford’s Equity Task Force, established by Sanford Mayor Chet Mann and the City Council in the fall of 2020, to identify community needs and recommend solutions it considered critical to the city’s future. The group spent a year in assembling its findings and recommendations before initially reporting them to the City Council 11 weeks ago.

The Task Force’s findings, as they did with the Council in November, surprised few people but the numbers attached to them quantify the depth of the economic and social struggles taking place in a county working to lift itself from its traditional agricultural roots to a place among the state’s manufacturing elite.

The report found that more than 50 percent of the students at both Lee County High School and Southern Lee High School are considered economically disadvantaged, and that 68.5 percent of the entire school district’s population meets that same definition.

The percentage of Sanford residents by racial and ethnic groups who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree is low. 33.6 percent of white residents have earned a bachelor’s or higher, while the same can be said for less than half that percentage of Black residents (13.7 percent) and just one-sixth that percentage of Latino (5.3 percent).

The report also found that mentoring and after school programs can reduce the incidence of crime, violence, and other adolescent risk behaviors, and it noted there are not enough opportunities for adolescents ages 12 to 17 in Sanford and Lee County.

Among its list of recommendations is a collaboration between the county, the city, and Lee County Schools to create measures that create more diversity among educational staff and support networks for educators of color. Another recommendation was collaboration between the county and the city to eliminate traffic court debt and reinstate driver’s licenses revoked because of it, reduce the use of cash bail, and eliminate incarceration for failure to pay fines and fees.

In a separate but related agenda item, the commissioners approved a recommendation to address the issue of creating new young leaders through the formation of a Lee County Youth Council that would “foster the development of responsible leadership amongst youth through involvement in community affairs and in decision-making processes at all levels of government.”

CSX rezoning request heard

The commissioners held a public hearing on the rezoning of a vacant 244-acre tract in the rural portion of the northern part of the county, with frontage along the south side of Farrell Road, between Osgood Road and Lower Moncure Road. The property is currently owned by Bullard Trailer Sales Number 2 and is pending sale to CSX Transportation, who wishes to convert the tract into a railroad yard with a small office and parking area.

The land is currently zoned as Residential Agricultural, established in the county’s Plan SanLee to provide areas for low density single family uses and agricultural operations. CSX proposes to rezone the tract as Heavy Industrial, which is not permitted unless it clearly supports some agricultural use.

A final vote on the request is expected at the next board meeting on February 7.

County Facilities Report

Crumpton also reported that commissioners and trustees of Central Carolina Community College will be taking joint tours of the former Magneti Marelli property on Nash Street on February 8 and talking about possibilities for use of the facilities by the college in the coming years.

“It’ll be interesting to talk to them and find out what kind of plans they have,” he said.

Lee County acquired the 22-acre site last summer when the company announced plans to end operations at the site. CCCC announced plans last July 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.”

Crumpton said earlier in January that Magneti Marelli has ended all its operations at the facility and that the county has taken possession of all five buildings on the property, with an eye toward the eventual transference of the property to the college.

The next step in that process is the cleanup of industrial and hazardous waste. A hazardous materials permit has been transferred into Lee County’s name and 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. Design work on what the new interiors will look like can begin as soon as the cleanup phase is completed.

The courthouse project should be completed by March 1. The judge’s chambers, jury room, grand jury room, and magistrate’s courtroom remain on the list for completion.

The county has received six proposals for design of the Multi Sports Complex. Crumpton told Commissioners that these will be narrowed down to three architectural firms to interview in anticipation of making a recommendation for selection at the next meeting on February 7.

Strategic planning and budget process to begin

The commissioners will hold a discussion on their strategic plan starting this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. On Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., in-depth conversations will take place on the county’s EMS services, Central Carolina Community College, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, and several county departments.

“It’s an exciting time to have those discussions and a much better time to have them than it was about 10 years ago when we had to talk about significant budget cuts,” Crumpton said.