Former NC House minority leader gets judicial appointment

Gov. Roy Cooper announced he is appointing Rep. Darren Jackson to the NC Court of Appeals to fill the seat left vacant by Phil Berger Jr. Berger was elected to the state Supreme Court last month.

Jackson served six terms in the NC House and was minority leader for two terms. He

represented House District 39 in eastern Wake County.

“Darren Jackson has spent his legal career fighting for a more fair and just North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. “His decades of experience as a lawyer and elected public servant have prepared him for the bench, and I’m grateful for his willingness to continue serving our state with honor.”

Sen. Sam Searcy of Holly Springs, who was elected to his second term last month, is resigning.

“Recently an unexpected opportunity to serve NC presented itself,” he said on Twitter.

Searcy said on Twitter that he wants Sydney Batch to fill his seat.

Batch served one term in the NC House before losing reelection last month to represent House District 37, which covers the southwest corner of Wake County.

State, NC Central unite to get COVID-19 vaccine information to underserved communities

The state Department of Health and Human Services and a health project at NC Central University are working together to get information about COVID-19 vaccines to historically marginalized communities.

“We’ll be making sure the outreach DHHS wants reaches the underserved communities in the counties where we are working,” said Deepak Kumar, director of the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute and the founder of the Advanced Center for COVID-19 Related Disparities at NCCU.

ACCORD had been working in nine counties, but has a grant allowing it to expand, Kumar said.

ACCORD has been coordinating coronavirus testing, conducting in-person surveys and hosting virtual town halls on COVID-19 in rural counties.

“We have a strong network of community advocates and leaders,” Kumar said in an interview. Through them, we’re making sure information from DHHS and ACCORD is disseminated widely.”

National, state, and localized surveys have shown that Black and Latinx residents are more wary of COVID-19 vaccines than the population at large.

“As the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities, it is essential that we reach those most impacted,” Ben Money, DHHS deputy secretary for health services, said in a news release. “By partnering with ACCORD, we are able to better ensure that we engage American Indian, African American and Latinx populations, as well as those without internet access, to build confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.”

The long history of medical abuses targeting Black Americans has helped fuel distrust of the new vaccines. A survey conducted in nine counties by ACCORD found that only 22% of African Americans said they were ready to take a vaccine.

Latinx advocates have said that immigrants won’t want to provide their contact information to medical personnel. The information is collected so those who get the first dose of vaccine get reminders when they need the second dose, state health officials have said.

The state is in phase 1a of vaccine distribution, with medical personnel who work with or near COVID-19 patients and workers and residents of long-term care facilities the first to get shots. According to vaccination information updated Tuesday, 63,571 people have received a first dose of a vaccine.

It’s likely that vaccines won’t be widely available until late spring or early summer.

ACCORD will continue to conduct surveys, Kumar said. There is evidence of a slight shift in vaccine acceptance in the weeks since the first two COVID-19 vaccines received emergency use authorization and people started getting shots, he said.

“With the vaccine getting implemented the information is going to be evolving,” he said. “We will continuously collect the data.”

ACCORD was established with money from the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund through the NC Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A small NC town pushed its accounting firm to finish a past-due audit

After a state commission that monitors municipal finances and approves borrowing pressured three towns to file long-overdue audits, two of those towns said the accounting firm they used was a source of the delays.

Wilkesboro and Ronda were years late in submitting annual audits and both used Rives & Associates for audit services. Rives & Associates changed its name this year to RH CPAs.

Accountants who used to work for the company told the Ronda town clerk in emails that management changes and company departures caused delays.

Initially, RH CPAs partner W. Leon Rives told Policy Watch the company had trouble getting financial information from the towns. Company spokesman Monty Hagler attributed the delays to complications that included “client factors that were beyond our control.”

However, email Policy Watch received from the state Treasurer’s Office as part of a public records request show Rives & Associates accountants telling Ronda’s town clerk that management changes and turnover at the company made the town’s 2017-18 audit late, as she repeatedly pressed them for information on when the work would be done.

Ronda town clerk Talesa Carter was asking a Rives & Associates accountant in late 2019 why the town’s 2017-18 audit wasn’t finished.

In an Aug. 14, 2019 email to the town, an accountant then at Rives & Associates, Courtney J. Wade, apologized for being out of touch, but said the 2018 audit will soon be finished.

“We apologize for not getting back to you sooner, we promise we haven’t forgotten about you all,” Wade wrote. “Unfortunately, we have had some management changes and an entire system shut-down that has placed us behind, which is indeed no excuse.” She said the audit would be finished within two weeks.

Three months later, in a Nov. 14, 2019 email, Carter asked Wade why the audit wasn’t finished as promised.

“In this email from August you said that our audit would be finished within the next two weeks,” Carter wrote. “It is now November 14th and we still haven’t received confirmation that our audit has been completed. Can you please update us and explain why our audit is not complete when you have had all our financials in hand for over 6 months now.”

Ronda’s 2017-18 audit still wasn’t done in early 2020, when Carter received an email from Travis Hardee, a Rives & Associates CPA.  “I have not forgot about you,” Hardee wrote in a March 16. “We have been in such a mess with nearly half our firm leaving and trying to keep up with the work they left behind.”

In a January 2020 email to Sharon Edmundson at the Treasurer’s Office, Hardee said Wade had left the Rives firm. Hardee later left Rives and helped start his own firm.

When Policy Watch described for Hagler the contents of the emails last week, Hagler said there had been “system failures,” but the company has changed.

“When Rives & Associates learned about service failures and delayed audits, the firm made a number of adjustments to its governmental team and its processes to ensure these issues did not reoccur,” Hagler wrote.

Sixty-five NC counties in the COVID-19 red zone with critical viral spread

Sixty-five of the state’s 100 counties have critical community spread of the coronavirus, and 27 counties have substantial community spread, according to North Carolina’s updated COVID-19 county alert system.

Tuesday’s updates came as the state Department of Health and Human Services reported a record 3001  COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state Monday.

The county alert designations are based on case rate, the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive, and the impact on hospitals. The alert system shows how many more counties have moved to the red zone. On Dec. 8, 48 counties were red, or had critical community spread, and 34 were orange, with substantial viral spread.

“This is alarming,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at a Tuesday news conference. “This virus continues to spread quickly.  Don’t get numbed to these numbers.”

The news conference featured two church leaders who talked of celebrating Christmas safely.

“At the end of his unprecedented year, lets recommit to keeping ourselves and each other safe so that we can be here next year to celebrate how far we’ve come,” Cooper said.

DHHS added information on  how many people have been vaccinated to its data dashboard, along with numbers by county and demographic information. It shows that 24,500 people have received a first dose of vaccine.

North Carolina is in Phase 1a of its vaccination plan, where health care workers exposed to COVID-19 patients and long-term care facility residents and staff will be vaccinated.

The FDA has granted emergency use authorization for two COVID-19 vaccines, one produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and the other by Moderna. Each requires two doses administered weeks apart. CVS and Walgreens will begin vaccinating people at the state’s long-term care facilities Dec. 28, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary.

The state is going to change to its vaccine roll-out plan based on a recent CDC advisory group recommendation that people 75 and older and front-line essential workers, which would include teachers, grocery store workers, and agriculture workers, be in phase 1b of a vaccination plan.

“We are looking at that guidance right now, and we will have changes to our prioritization,” Cohen said. “So, stay tuned as we work through that.”

North Carolina has migrant farm and fishery workers without two or more chronic conditions and who live in communal housing, frontline workers at high or moderate risk of exposure who don’t have two or more chronic conditions, and teachers and other school staff in Phase 2 of its vaccination plan.

Migrant agriculture workers and frontline workers with two or more chronic conditions are in already in Phase 1b of the state plan.

The state’s new hires won’t be able to use the employee health plan at retirement

State employees hired after Jan. 1 will not be eligible for state employee health coverage if they work long enough for North Carolina to retire.

Eliminating state health insurance coverage for future retirees was part of the state budget passed in 2017 over the objections of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the NC Association of Educators, and the N.C. Retired Governmental Employees’ Association. Leaders of those groups said cutting benefits would make it harder to hire correctional officers, teachers, and others to fill job vacancies.

The change will not affect people now working for the state.

Senate Republicans pushed for the change to make state employees’ retirement benefits similar to benefits private-sector employees receive.

In an interview Wednesday, Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators, said the change will make it hard to attract educators.

Tamika Walker Kelly

“It does make it harder to recruit younger millennial teachers into the profession,” she said.

Kelly said if she were a new teacher, accepting a job in 2021 it would be a hard decision knowing that teachers hired in 2020 have better retirement benefits.

NCAE wants to restore state retiree health care “so we can continue to draw the best and the brightest to the state of North Carolina and honor the years of service they are going to put in,” she said.

The lost health benefit will make it less likely that new employees will consider careers in government service, said Richard Rogers, executive director of the NC Retired Governmental Employees’ Association.

The change will make it more likely that people will work for the state for a short time to gain experience, then move on to higher-paying private-sector jobs, he said.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

“A few years under your belt and off you go,” Rogers said. That happens now, but the lost retiree benefit will make it even harder for the state to retain quality employees, he said.

Rogers said there’s a chance the benefit will be restored.

“Give it a year or two,” he said. “It will come back up. We’ll have a harder time getting folks hired.”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell maintained in 2017 that the state employee health plan had billions in estimated future costs outpacing revenue.

In a statement Wednesday, Folwell said he didn’t know the change was in the budget and followed the law as it passed.

“Our focus has been on the IT implementation of the law, which had a nearly 3 year runway,” he wrote.

“I have not seen a fiscal note on the impact. For old and new employees, our focus is on maintaining the pension and healthcare plan for the next generation of public service workers.”