Pay raise scandal cost more than $200,000

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 9, 2014 

Smithfield finally knows what it’s pay-raise scandal cost taxpayers: at least $200,000.

Former town manager Eric Williams is suing the town and former town clerk Debbie Godwin over his firing, and as the litigation moves forward, Smithfield is learning how much it shelled out for improper vacation and hardship pay, unauthorized pay raises, questionable dry cleaning and the cashing out of comp time.

“It looks like the number on the unauthorized expenditures exceeds $200,000,” Councilman Emery Ashley said during last week’s Town Council meeting.

Depositions in the case have begun. Separately, Godwin is suing the town to pay her legal fees, Ashley said.

Ashley said he hopes to give more updates in the months ahead. “There is not a week that goes by that I am not asked by at least one person,” he said. “There is not a week that goes by when great dismay is expressed that we are not getting to the bottom of this.”

Hiring change

Councilmen undid a rule that requires new hires to go through them.

About a year ago, the Town Council began approving all new hires, even if the position was already in the budget. For instance, if a police officer retired midyear, the council would have to approve his replacement.

At a budget meeting last month, Councilman Roger Wood said the practice wasted time during council meetings. The fire and police chiefs added that the practice had hurt their ability to hire the best candidate. While waiting for the next council meeting, a potential hire could accept a job elsewhere, the chiefs said.

From now on, the town manager will approve new hires and list them in the council’s consent agenda. This is only for positions already in the budget.

Online bill pay

Finance director Greg Siler gave the council two options for online bill pay. Right now, Smithfield customers have to pay in person or by mail.

One option would give customers an online account and the ability to see their payment and usage history. The other option would allow online bill pay but offer no information. The first option would cost $2.50 per transaction, which the town would likely pass on to customers.

The council gave Siler permission to seek for bids for his options. He will come back later with a recommendation.

No to solar farms

Despite testimony from expert witness, the Town Council last week said no to two proposed solar farms just east of town.

Sunlight Partners, based in Greensboro, was seeking the town’s permission to build one farm near Yelverton Grove Road and Ray Drive and another near Hill Road and U.S. 70 Business.

To support its case, Sunlight Partners offered testimony from a technology engineer and a professional property appraiser. Both said solar farms were safe operations that would not harm surrounding property values.

But the council wasn’t convinced. After almost two hours of debate that included some testy exchanges between the experts and councilmen, everyone except Ashley voted against both solar farms.

Other business

The council received an update on the town’s electric rates. Within the 32 public power towns that make up ElectriCities, Smithfield’s residential rates are second lowest. Public utilities director Ken Griffin said he still comparing Smithfield’s commercial and industrial rates. Once Griffin is done with that chore, Councilman Travis Scott wants to hold a public forum to explain electric rates and electric fund transfers.

The council voted 4-3 to move forward with piloting automated meter reading for water and electricity. The SmartGrid system would pay for itself in about five years, Griffin said. The pilot project will cost $12,000. The system, if later implement, would cost $2 to $3 million.

Scott said he wanted to save money now and cut electric rates, rather than spend money now to save money later. Councilmen Perry Harris and Marlon Lee joined him in voting against the pilot.

Tony Nixon, chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, asked the Town Council to erect a fence between the Pine Acres neighborhood and Smithfield Crossings, the new road leading to Industrial Park Drive. The road is causing more foot traffic, and residents feel unsafe, he said.

Town Manager Paul Sabiston said the town will add a fence after the road project officially wraps up in the coming weeks.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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