Four locals in line for state “distressed utilities” money

Three towns and a sewer district are in line to get money from a new state fund intended to help public utilities that the local fees can no longer support.

The State Infrastructure Authority and the Local Government Commission have designated the sewer systems in the towns of Eureka, Kingstown, and the Cliffside Sanitary District, and the water and sewer systems in the town of Bethel distressed utilities. They are being considered for grants of between $100,000 and $400,000 to pay for tasks such as rate and merger studies.

Eureka and Cliffside have also received grants to cover their operating deficits.

The designations and the money spring from a law passed this year setting up a $9 million Viable Utility Fund intended to help troubled utilities become self-sustaining.

The state Treasurer’s office already controls Eureka’s and the Cliffside Sanitary District’s finances.

Aging water and sewer systems throughout the state don’t raise enough from declining customer bases to pay for operations, debt, or repairs.

“What’s happening in rural North Carolina, especially eastern North Carolina is not a revolution, it’s an evolution,” State Treasurer Dale Folwell said at a news conference Tuesday.

These four represent a small fraction of public utilities in trouble.

A study of capital cost needs highlighted in the State Water Infrastructure Authority 2017 master plan estimated $10 billion to $15 billion for water systems and $7 billion to $11 billion for sewer systems over 20 years.

Gov. Roy Cooper proposed a $800 million bond for local water and sewer projects as part of his 2019 budget. The legislature did not consider it.

COVID-19, News

More in NC go hungry in the pandemic, NCCU finds

Nearly 80% of North Carolinians are at least considering sharing a meal with someone outside their household on Thanksgiving or winter holiday, and nearly 18% reported having too little food on at least one day in the previous week, according to preliminary results from an online survey conducted
Nov. 17-22.

N.C. Central University researchers sponsored the survey on COVID-19 and its effects on households. Researchers found increased food insecurity and lower household incomes.

“This suggests food insecurity is higher than it has been,” Christopher Paul, NCCU assistant professor of public administration and principal investigator on the food insecurity research project, said in an interview. “In this initial analysis, it’s at some of its highest levels in recent history.”

Thirty-two percent of respondents to NCCU’s survey reported losing income, and 38% said that if they got sick, it was unlikely they could count on neighbors to shop for them.

It’s not known whether the 77.4% who said they were at least considering dining with people outside the household over the holidays planned to do so indoors or outdoors, Paul said. Nearly 40% answered “yes” to the question.

“We don’t know a lot about how people are gathering,” Paul said. “A major factor is there is a confusion about what is safe, and there’s still a great desire to gather.”

The survey helps expose the COVID-19 pandemic’s broad impact, he said.

“We see how our food and well-being intersect. It shows these vast impacts on our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. There are things we can do as a society, checking in on neighbors, through government and nongovernment organizations, to make sure we maintain people’s access to food and social supports.”

The 1,345 respondents were part of an internet survey panel and include residents in 97 counties. NCCU’s full report is expected in mid-December.

The US Department of Agriculture reported 13.1% of North Carolina households from 2017-2019 did not have enough food, relied on food banks or food stamps, or used other strategies to eat.


Thousands of full-time workers in NC must use food stamps

Millions of adults in the United States work full-time for wages so low that they qualify for government safety net programs for food and medical care, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

Of the 1.2 million people using food stamps in North Carolina, 12% were working adults, the report said.

Most workers in the United States who use food stamps or Medicaid are employed in stores and restaurants, the report said. The agency used 11 states’ Medicaid and SNAP data from February 2020 – before the pandemic job losses – and census data to build its report. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps.

The report included information from North Carolina’s food stamp program.

Looking at North Carolina employers with 50 or more SNAP recipients, the GAO estimated 89% were private sector companies, 4% were public sector employers, and 4% were non-profits.

An estimated 26% of adult, working SNAP recipients in North Carolina worked in restaurants, 13% worked in department stores, and 12% worked in grocery stores.

The top three employers in North Carolina who workers used food stamps were Walmart, which employed about 2.8% of working SNAP recipients; Food Lion, which employed about 1.8%, and McDonald’s, which employed about 1.4%.

COVID-19, News

This is the toughest part of the pandemic. Next year will be better, says former FDA commissioner

Dr. Mark McClellan (Photo: Duke University)

The nation is going through “the toughest part” of the coronavirus pandemic, with COVID-19 cases spiking nationwide ahead of the holiday season, said Dr. Mark McClellan, a Duke University professor and former FDA commissioner.

But next year will be better, McClellan said, when vaccines become available to the general public.

“This is probably the last big surge,” he told reporters Tuesday.  “It’s going to start getting better in 2021.”

New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are setting records in North Carolina, and Gov. Roy Cooper recently lowered to 10 the number of people who can gather indoors. Still, North Carolina has not seen the kinds of increases that are swamping some Midwestern and Great Plains states, and which forced El Paso, Texas, to set up a field hospital in a convention center and bring in mobile morgues, as NPR reported.

“Trends are concerning in terms of rising cases,” McClellan said of North Carolina. “It is not as bad as many parts of the county where we’re seeing cases skyrocketing out of control.”

McClellan said the country does not need a full lockdown, but state and local governments should take “measured steps,” that keep viral spread from getting worse and the economy as stable as possible.

Members of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team need to work closely with career federal government workers, McClellan said.

So far, President Trump is blocking the transition.

Biden will likely announce on his first day a national plan that makes testing more widely available and a plan for increasing availability of therapeutics, McClellan said.

COVID-19, News

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in North Carolina’s rural counties

Nearly twice as many of the state’s new COVID-19 cases since September were in rural counties rather than urban or suburban counties, says a new report the state Department of Health and Human Services released Thursday.

Most of the rural cases were in the white population and among people 49 years old and younger, the report said.

New cases and hospitalizations are increasing around the world and setting records in North Carolina.

DHHS says the state’s increases in COVID-19 cases are fueled by community spread.

Despite increased COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide, UNC Health is not considering going back to the policy it pursued earlier in the pandemic when its hospitals postponed elective surgeries to preserve supplies and keep beds available, spokesman Alan Wolf said in an interview.

The hospital system was treating 170 people with COVID-19 as inpatients one day this week, and most were not in ICUs, Wolf said.

“There is some concern as we look ahead. The projections do show higher numbers in the coming weeks, partly from the pandemic, partly from the flu. It’s going to be a busy time,” he said. “We’re not as worried about capacity. We’ve gotten a lot better at this.”

State officials are working to adjust as cold weather sets in and the holidays approach.

Thanksgiving is going to look a lot different in North Carolina for people who are used to big meals with friends and family, if they follow the state’s pandemic guidelines.

Indoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people, folks will be sitting apart from people they don’t live with, and conversations will be through masks.

And for the first time in the pandemic, state officials are suggesting that people get tested if they plan to travel, even if they don’t have symptoms or aren’t in a high-risk group.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen

Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the NC Department of Health and Human Services,  said at a Thursday afternoon news conference that people traveling should consider getting a coronavirus test three or four days in advance. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office announced it was supplying college and universities with 74,470 rapid tests, paid for by the federal government, for students to use before they leave campus for the holidays.

Holiday gatherings, where people who don’t usually live together sit side-by-side indoors, are conditions where the coronavirus spreads easily.

“We have to approach those traditions very carefully,” Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of Infection Prevention at UNC Medical Center, said during a UNC Health news conference Thursday morning.  “COVID transmission won’t halt for the holidays.”

It’s important to acknowledge that the holidays are going to look different this year, Crystal Schiller, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the UNC Psychology Department, said at the morning news conference. Plan to emphasize the things that make the holiday special, she advised. Schiller said her family enjoys cooking together, so this year they’ll translate that tradition to Zoom.

Sickbert-Bennett said even people who test negative before traveling should still practice all the other safety precautions.

“A negative test only gives you information about a single point in time. It does not mean you will remain negative after that test. This can be very worrisome,” she said.

They’ve seen instances in the community and the hospital were testing has given people a false sense of security, leading them to dismiss COVID-19 symptoms because they had recently tested negative, she said.

“Don’t use that as a substitute for any other prevention measures,” she said.