Smithfield witnessed change

From Staff ReportsDecember 30, 2013 

Smithfield saw major changes in 2013. The main road into downtown reopened after a bridge replacement, and the Town Council welcomed four new members, the largest turnover in recent memory.

New bridge opens

The new bridge over the Neuse River downtown opened in April, bringing relief to commuters and downtown businesses,

The N.C. Department of Transportation closed the bridge in September 2012 because it was “functionally obsolete,” meaning it was safe but not up to modern bride-design standards. The old bridge opened in 1923. The new bridge has wider lanes and and walkways for pedestrians.

About 25,000 vehicles pass over the bridge each day, according to the DOT. The detour added miles to drivers’ trips and caused some downtown businesses to struggle.

The $5.3 million project stayed on schedule, and the bridge opened in April after about seven months.

N.C. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata visited Smithfield in March to see the construction project.

“I know this can be contentious,” Tata said at the time. “You’re cutting the main artery of the town … so thanks for your teamwork on this.”

New leadership

The Smithfield Town Council lost 60 years of experience when the mayor and three councilmen chose not to seek re-election.

The four to leave the board were District 1 Councilman Charles Williams, with 24 years on the council; Vic Ogburn of District 3, 20 years; Mayor Daniel Evans, 12 years; and Councilman Zach Crocker of District 4, four years.

Such turnover is rare in small-town government. The term of District 2 Councilman Perry Harris was also up this year; he ran unopposed in his bid for re-election.

In the November election, only the District 4 seat was contested. Roger Wood won a narrow victory over Carvus Andrew “Andy” Byrd, 135 votes to 133.

The race dragged on as the candidates waited for the Board of Elections to consider unopened provisional ballots a week after the election. The ballots could have made the election a tie, which the Board of Elections would decided by drawing a name out of a hat. But the provisional were actually for a different election, and the Board of Elections confirmed Wood as the winner after a recount didn’t change the results.

Other new faces on the council are Mayor John Lampe and Councilmen Marlon Lee in District 1 and Travis Scott in District 3.

Town Hall changes

Smithfield hired Greg Siler as its new finance director.

Siler started Sept. 30 and is the town’s fourth finance director in two years. He comes from Hillsborough, where he was finance director for 10 years. Before that, he spent 15 years working for the bank that became Suntrust and five years in customer service for an insurance company in Connecticut.

In March 2012, Smithfield’s finance director Justin Merritt resigned; he was among the employees who received pay raises after the Town Council told then-town manager Eric Williams not to award any.

The town had an interim director for three months before Mary Hogan took the job in June of that year. But she resigned after just eight months. Andrew Harris was interim finance director from March until Siler’s arrival.

“I don’t have a history of changing jobs at the drop of a hat, so to speak,” Siler said in September. “My first plan is to stick and stay, because it’s hard on staff, it’s hard on the town when you don’t have any one person that’s accountable.”

Also in Town Hall, Smithfield’s public utilities director, Earl Botkin, left for a job in Kinston in November.

Botkin, who came to Smithfield in March of 2007, said he chose to become Kinston’s electric system manager because the opportunity was great professionally. But Botkin said he would miss working in Smithfield and still planned to live in town.

Former Smithfield town manager Pete Connet is serving as interim utilities director. He retired as town manager in 2009.

Town Manager Paul Sabiston said it will take at least a couple of months to find a replacement.

School bonds

Smithfield voters joined voters countywide in saying yes to two bond issues on the November ballot: $57 million for Johnston County Schools and another $7 million for Johnston Community College. Both passed with roughly 3-1 margins.

The school system will use the money for renovations, to convert North Johnston Middle School into an elementary school, build a new North Johnston Middle School and build another new middle school in the Cleveland/McGee’s Crossroads area.

JCC will use the money for renovations and to create a master plan for the campus and then work on the projects identified by the master plan.

School and college leaders urged voters to approve the bonds to accommodate enrollment growth.

Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom said about 700 new students come to Johnston County each year. “The growth in our public schools will continue,” Croom said in October. “As long as we can float bonds without a tax increase, that is the most feasible way to build new schools.”

David Johnson, president of JCC, said the county is going to grow 48 percent by 2032, according to some predictions. “If we don’t plan for that growth now, we will never, ever be able to afford it when we experience it,” he said. “So now is the time.”

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