By Richard Sullins |

Now that Lee County has received all the federal COVID relief funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), county commissioners have approved the distribution of almost all of the remaining proceeds.

With about $4.1 million left to spend from the original allotment of just under $12 million, the commissioners approved a listing of 11 items that total $1,281,000. The deadline for spending all ARPA funds is December 31, 2026.

Among the items approved Monday were:
*$200,000 for a playground at Temple Park,
*$210,000 for a shelter with restrooms at Temple Park,
*$425,000 for sports lighting at O.T. Sloan Park (T-ball, tennis, and pickleball),
*$58,000 to create a training room for employees,
*$4,000 for Basic Needs,
*$3,000 for Safe Sleep,
*$3,000 for Safe Travel,
*$12,000 for Safe Space,
*$50,000 for rental and utility assistance for seniors,
*$96,000 for Lucas CPR machines,
*$220.000 for staff retention,

The Basic Needs program helps children who are in the custody of Lee County DSS by providing $100 per year for each child to purchase clothing or other necessities. The Safe Sleep initiative provides portable beds for child welfare-involved families that lack safe sleeping arrangements.

Car seats are provided for child welfare-involved families who cannot afford them through Safe Travel, and child safety locks for doors, windows, drawers, outlets, gun cabinets, and medicine contains are made available through the Safe Space initiative.

Earlier this year, the county allocated funds for a number of other big-ticket items that included:

*$2 million for a new multi-purpose meeting room,
*$576,000 for HVAC repairs and upgrades at the Bob Hales Center,
*$315,000 for a shelter project with Outreach Ministries,
*$159,000 for a full-body scanner for the County jail,
*$850,000 for affordable housing projects in partnership with Brick Capital

The U.S. Department of the Treasury also notified Sanford and Broadway last summer that they would receive ARPA allocations. Sanford’s allotment was $9,588,013 and Broadway’s was $409,844.

County staff also shared another category of projects labeled simply as “future” that are not ready to be moved on, usually because a quote or a bid hasn’t been formally received. Among those items are $250,000 for an Urgent Repair program; $250,000 for a bookmobile; $225,000 for a playground at O.T. Sloan Park; and $155,475 to address storm water runoff issues along the walking trails and creek at Kiwanis Family Park.

CDBG hearing held for housing grant

The commissioners held the first of two required public hearings on a proposed application for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) through the North Carolina Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

Staff from the county, the Triangle J Council of Governments, and Brick Capital Community Development Corporation are working together on the application that could bring as much as $950,000 in funding for low to moderate income family housing.

This subdivision, to be located just off Washington Avenue, will include 45 single family lots and a 16-unit apartment complex.

If approved, these grant funds would pay for costs related to infrastructure at the site, which includes water and sewer lines, roads, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, and erosion control. The hope is to have all of the infrastructure funding in place by the end of 2022 so clearing and grading could start in early 2023, followed by construction of individual units.

Kerry Bashaw, executive director at Brick Capital, said the Washington Avenue project will include “workforce housing,” meaning it will provide homes for low to middle income public servants like teachers, police officers, and firemen who have found themselves frozen out of the current housing market by skyrocketing home prices.

“It’s for those that don’t have a chance on the open market based on where the housing market is today,” he said.

Bashaw said “without support from state dollars, workforce housing will not be possible for many families. Interest rates have doubled over the past six months, and we are here to give working class families a chance at home ownership.”

John Kirkman, who is a Democratic candidate for county commissioner in District 2, stood in support of the application.

“We have a desperate need for more affordable housing. Let’s do the right thing here,” he said.

The housing crunch is real in Sanford. Kelley Dubois with Adcock Real Estate Services told a group of about 250 business leaders at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center Thursday that the cost of new home construction for first-time buyers is particularly painful.

“Four years ago, the average house built in Lee or Harnett counties would go for about $90 per square foot. Now, I would struggle to find a house in either county for less than $150 a square foot,” she said

Criminal justice reforms needed

Commission Chairman Kirk Smith, a Republican, asked commissioners for input in drawing up legislative goals that might be championed by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners in advance of the 2023 “long session” of the state legislature.

Republican Commissioner Bill Carver recommended the association push for a measure that would require at least one public defender in each of the state’s 100 counties. Only 38 counties in the state have a dedicated public defender to handle the cases of those who cannot afford an attorney.

Carver said the current system places an economic burden on lawyers who don’t get compensated for providing these services.

“But the very workings of this process leave people in jail because they can’t afford to get a lawyer,” he stated.

Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives Sr. agreed that addressing this circumstance is a moral imperative.

“We have people who have been locked up in this county’s jail for up to six years without their case going to trial because they cannot afford legal representation. Now, that’s just not right,” he said.

County Manager Dr. John Crumpton said either increasing the number of public defenders or raising the amounts paid to court-appointed attorneys should be done.

Both are paid by the state or federal government, but court-appointed attorneys are private lawyers appointed by the court on an as-needed basis and paid on an hourly rate. That compensation now is about $65 per hour, while they incur an average cost of $54 per hour. A good private attorney can expect to make at least $200 per hour if they don’t participate in the court-appointed attorneys’ program. On the other side of the coin, public defenders are typically salaried employees who work only for the county, state, or federal government.

Crumpton said this issue is being driven by increases in the jail populations in almost every county in the state “and their cases are being continued continuously, and that’s how you end up having someone held in jail for six years. All these continuances just back up the system.”

Crumpton said he hopes by drawing attention to the increase in jail occupancy, a critical mass will be achieved that gets state legislators to take notice.

“Six years doesn’t sound like a speedy trial to me, under the Constitution,” he added.

Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe said the Lee County Jail is now home to between 20 and 30 persons charged with murder and until action is taken by the state to remove some of the bottle necks in the system, the costs to the county for continuing to house and feed those persons will continue to be a drain on its budget.