The 2021 municipal elections are closing in on Nov. 2, and the Roanoke Rapids Sanitary District has picked up interest that could change how the agency operates.
According to the sanitary district’s website, the facility based in Roanoke Rapids is a municipal corporation, meaning it was created by the North Carolina State Board of Health on April 21, 1931, to provide the creation, government and operation of sanitary districts. The RRSD is governed by three board members elected by the citizens residing in operating areas of the agency. The district is comprised of Roanoke Rapids, Gaston, unincorporated areas such as Greenbriar, Lincoln Heights, West Rosemary, Lakeview and Becker Industrial Park.
According to its website, the district’s purpose is to promote health, safety and welfare by improving the quality and quantity of water delivered to the public and collecting and treating wastewater generated from residential, commercial and industrial communities.
The RRSD has seen very few candidates take an interest in the Board of Director’s seats since 2015, with Steve Holliday and Eugene St. Clair remaining on the board and Gregory L. Browning taking a seat in the 2017 election. One candidate ran against all three in the 2017 election, but none, with the exception of write-ins, took an interest in 2019. Now three fresh candidates are prepared for the upcoming election, with Steven Holliday not seeking re-election, leaving an open seat guaranteed to go to one of the new candidates.
Official candidates running for the 2021 RRSD seats are incumbents Browning and St. Clair, and fresh candidates Jon Baker, James E. Kerr II and Colby Lyles.
The Herald compiled questions equally for each candidate to answer.
Browning: N/A. The Roanoke Rapids Sanitary District election is a Non-Partisan Race. However, I always vote and make decisions based on the issues important to me and the citizens I represent.
St. Clair: N/A
What do you do for a living
Lyles: I am a financial adviser with Edward Jones. My practice is at 933 Park Ave. in Roanoke Rapids.
Browning: I am retired after serving nearly 40 years of service as District Manager with the Social Security Administration. (Service Area of Northeastern North Carolina including Halifax and Northampton counties); I represent Roanoke Rapids on the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments Board; Roanoke Rapids and Halifax City Planning Boards; Halifax City Council on Aging.
Kerr: I am the owner-operator of JE Kerr Timber Company, which is a land management and forestry-related business. I have 40 years of experience in this region and understand how important water is to our area.
Baker: Owner, Jon’s Auto Glass Inc.
St. Clair: Owner/Manager A&E Portable Restrooms Inc.
Why are you running?
Lyles: I have always had a desire to help when issues are recurring that need to be addressed — especially in my hometown where I am personally invested.
Browning: As the first Black RRSD Commissioner elected since 1931, I bring a well-rounded wealth of experience along with Gene St Clair and Steve Holliday to the Board. As the District progress in a conservative and well-balanced fiscal budgetary manner, the citizens of the Roanoke Valley welcome continued improvements and affordable water and sewer rates with quality service. Everyone enjoys seeing the RRSD performing well. Change is not always acceptable, but the political process is what makes our nation the model of democracy.
Kerr: I am running for this seat because I believe the Sanitary District has a vital role in our community. Not only does the district ensure safe drinking water and sanitary needs for thousands of homes but the capacity for growth is there to help grow our economy. We also need to be aware that systems upstream are going to use our assets (Roanoke River) to service water needs for Raleigh and other areas. We need to protect our assets. Our community has a lot of resources and water is one of the biggest.
Baker: I wanted to get involved and give back to a community that has been so good to my family and me.
St. Clair: Having been appointed by the Halifax County Board of Commissioners twice, I placed my name on the ballot to be sure someone is available to do the job. I bring 43 years of management experience running medium and small businesses to the table. My goal is to ensure the Sanitary District and its systems remain viable long into the future.
What are some of the biggest issues that you think need to be addressed, and why?
Lyles: I think the RRSD needs to have a full board in place that understands everyone’s role and purpose, including their own. How employees are treated defines how a business is considered and micro-managing does not provide a successful and thriving environment.
Browning: There are numerous issues that are currently being addressed. Infrastructure is a major focus. We have miles of aging pipes in need of replacement — some still in place since the beginning of the textile industry — the ‘30s, ‘40s, etc. We are a growing community and regionalization of water systems are a possibility, and we need to be in the forefront of this growing industry. Clean water and wastewater management are paramount. A well-trained and diverse workforce will be needed in the future. We have some great and dedicated employees, but we will need more people trained and prepared for this growing industry. We live in a Tier 1 county with high unemployment, low wages and limited income — we must keep water rates affordable. We are also in need of wastewater systems upgrades. New technology allows for underground systems.
Kerr: The Roanoke Rapids Sanitary District is well managed, but I think the district can become more involved in the growth of our region. The system has lots of capacity for growth in the number of customers, especially commercial customers.
Baker: Water infrastructure, water quality, and cost to the customers.
St. Clair: When I first got involved with the district, spills and overflows were common. I was able to direct attention to rehabilitating the distribution and collection systems (pipes in the ground). Spills and overflows have become much less frequent. Inflow and infiltration (leaking pipes) remain a major focus as the Wastewater Plant treats rainwater, groundwater and sewage the same. The added cost of treating this excess flow increases sewer rates.
Additional question for incumbents: What have you contributed to the success and accomplishments of the RRSD?
Browning: The continuous training and paying attention to safety is first and foremost. Our customers feel comfortable with the quality of the water we produce and the reliability of services we provide. The employees I have spoken with know they are appreciated. They also appreciated the enhanced and comprehensive fringe benefits, which include a 401(k) matching benefit plan and a new vacation package which also allows all employees to spend quality time with their families. We have one of the lowest rates for water consumption in the area. People on fixed incomes value our water rates vs. other areas.
St. Clair: In addition to the infrastructure improvements, the RRSD Board of Commissioners have begun to address archaic management practices that we feel are limiting future viability. We have revamped the benefits package to reduce back-end retirement expenses, replacing them with a 401(k) match that is much less expensive. We have introduced a dress code, diversity/inclusion, and associate discipline policies previously non-existent. It has been a great pleasure working with Steve and Greg to identify and correcting these deficiencies.
What does the average citizen need to know about the RRSD and its importance in the community?
Lyles: The RRSD and the employees are responsible for various public health matters like providing clean drinking water and sewage. Their hard work and dedication is extremely important for the health and safety of Roanoke Rapids citizens.
Browning: With water around us, we are currently in a mild-moderate drought regionally. We produce some of the best quality water in the area. The three current Board members updated employees’ fringe benefits to a more comprehensive package at no additional cost to our customers. All employees continued working during the pandemic. The budget included keeping costs low and included new equipment (such as electronic meters) and repairs or replacement of current equipment, keeping administrative cost at a moderate level and a low water increase about $1-$1.50 on average; instituted new policies to repair the perception in the public of nepotism and cronyism in hiring practices. We now utilize the services of NC Works to assist with hiring; we created a Political Activities Policy in the workplace; created a partnership with Halifax Community College for Internship Programs, Apprenticeship Program, High School/Early College Pre-apprenticeship Program for clean water and wastewater management; we created a Diversity Policy of Inclusion for minorities, women and bilingual employees.
Kerr: The average citizen needs to know that every time they turn on a faucet or flush a toilet, the Sanitary District is working for them. Safety is the top priority.
Baker: I believe people are aware of what a great resource we have here in the Roanoke Valley. Good, clean, plentiful water is something not everyone enjoys. We are very fortunate, and we need to manage and protect this vital resource.
St. Clair: I’ve heard many politicians declare clean water to be a right. Realistically, clean water is a privilege we enjoy as members of the RRSD because of the efforts of the 46 folks who keep this system going.
If you could speak from the heart about how you feel the RRSD has performed over the years, what would you say?
Lyles: I believe the RRSD has performed well over the years and would have performed even better if the people working on the front lines weren’t being micro-managed and their input/ideas were valued.
Browning: The overall performance of the RRSD has been really good. We are really blessed to have a clean water/wastewater system that is operating in a profitable and efficient manner. We have some well-trained and dedicated employees. We are addressing some of the areas of needed improvement. The changes enacted have boosted the morale of some employees. We have updated some management practices to streamline efficiency.
Kerr: I would say the Sanitary District has performed well. The water bills are low compared to the other districts, and the performance of our water and sewer plants is top-notch!
Baker: It is always a challenge, but especially in this current environment, we must ensure that the RRSD workforce is healthy, happy and motivated to continue the professional service that has been provided to its customers for all these years. The RRSD has some of the most dedicated, hardworking people that I know of.
St. Clair: It occurs to me that the RRSD was constructed to support the textile industry. We, the people, benefited from this as we were encouraged to utilize these services very inexpensively. With the departure of Westpoint Stevens, we have had to bear the expense of a system that is larger than our requirements demand. Annexing Gaston and providing water to Halifax and Northampton counties have helped use up some of the excess, but we continue to operate at less than half our capacity. Water and Sewer rates have increased slightly over the last 15 years. Without the efforts of RRSD management and the economic development teams, these would be dramatically higher.
Is there anything else that you would like to say that was not covered that you feel is important?
Lyles: My wife and I both are born and raised here in Roanoke Rapids where we now live with a family of our own. I feel a personal responsibility to speak up when needed for the benefit of my community.
Browning: The current Board of Commissioners, Gene St. Claire, Steve Holliday, and myself, took a fresh approach to do what is needed. We knew changes were difficult to embrace, but they were welcomed. Being a part of this board gave me an opportunity to see and address things the public was not aware of. We are taking a look at how we can take a more compassionate way to assist our customers when they need assistance or unable to pay their full bill. I recently had a call from a customer who had a large bill due to a busted pipe in the yard. We need to be able to render help. Our names and contact information is posted in the front lobby. Early in the pandemic, the current Board voted to extend payment plans beyond that of the Governor’s Office. From my associationship with UCPCOG, we are poised to apply for zero-interest loans, grants, etc., to secure funds for infrastructure.
Kerr: I am a long-time resident who has children and grandchildren right here in the Roanoke Valley. Their future depends on safe and well-regulated drinking water. I look forward to a wonderful future for the Roanoke Valley with lots of growth.
Baker: I have years of experience on many different boards. I know how the working structure of the RRSD should be and what the role of the RRSD Board should be. I would like to put that experience to work for the voters of the RRSD.
St. Clair: In Roanoke Rapids, as in many small towns, jobs have been passed down from generation to generation. It is important for the RRSD to open the doors to future generations by establishing internships and apprenticeship programs with assistance from Halifax Community College along with State and federal employment agencies that will provide the future workforce an experienced cadre of recruits that do not have to learn the basics through on the job training. The current board has met stiff resistance to this plan but continues to pursue the endeavor. Hopefully, the new board will continue.