CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly reported the cost of a monthly membership for town employees at the Iredell County Recreation Center. The cost is $25.
BY DEBBIE PAGE
During its agenda briefing on Monday, the Troutman Town Council discussed COVID-19 related policy for employees and visitors and voted unanimously to offer an employee wellness program and to contract with Payroll Pro Solutions to handle payroll and human resources services.
Council members also discussed revision of the town’s Public Records Request Policy, approved the purchase of three styles of banners for the town greenway, and heard a positive revenue report from Finance Director Steve Shealy.
Noting the resurgence of COVID-19, Town Manager Ron Wyatt asked council members for direction on the town’s policies regarding mask wearing and vaccine requirements for employees. A sign on the door currently strongly encourages those entering Town Hall to wear a mask.
Noting a diversity of opinions among staff members on both vaccine and mask issues, Wyatt said that he wanted the policy to be respectful and thoughtful of others. The choice to get a vaccine is personal, in Wyatt’s view, and staff members, including some who lost close family members to the virus, have exposure to the virus in their daily work.
“This is not something we take lightly. I strive to protect every employee here,” said Wyatt, who respects each individual’s decision on vaccination.
Wyatt cautioned against requiring employees to divulge personal health information, such as vaccine status. “That gets into a fine line,” he said.
Quarantining employees without pay after personal travel also penalizes those who did not get the shot. “I’m concerned about the liability of that policy,” Wyatt added.
Noting Town Attorney Gary Thomas did send out a finding that the council can mandate that employees get the COVID-19 vaccination, Wyatt believes mandating quarantine after personal travel without such a vaccine requirement in place would open the town to legal liability.
Wyatt recommended that the council’s policy strongly recommend masking and vaccination but avoid mandating these measures.
Mayor Teross Young wants the staff to be “protected and safe. I personally fully understand the nuances around making that choice.”
Young hoped the policy would be flexible but still clearly communicate expectations in writing.
The mayor noted that the virus situation is fluid, with a local school system at first making masks optional and then quickly returning to a requirement after quarantine numbers quickly rose within a few days of school starting.
“Our town manager brought up — be respectful of other people that are either vaccinated or not vaccinate,” commented council member Eddie Nau. “But my comment would be are the people that aren’t vaccinated being respectful to the people that have been? Like the mayor just said — my own personal opinion is no.”
“Non-vaccinated not being respectful or want to work with the people that have been because the people that have went and got vaccinated were told that they were gonna go back to a normal type life by getting vaccinated, not wearing masks, being able to go to restaurants, being able to not social distance.”
“So this is the reward for people that did what they were told to do? I don’t get where that’s the reward.”
Noting more than half of adults in North Carolina have gotten the shot and the military is being required to get the vaccine, Nau said: “That’s a strong statement.”
Council member Paul Henkel wondered if not requiring the vaccine would open the town to accusations of an unsafe workplace. Thomas noted that Worker’s Compensation and the Employment Security Commission are denying COVID-19-related worker claims.
Young suggested that the town continue to follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance that strongly recommends wearing a mask and getting the vaccine. He asked Wyatt to display signage to that effect.
In his final revenue update to council before his retirement, Finance Director Steve Shealy reported “robust” July sales tax numbers of $87,802, up from $61,037 last year. Water and sewer billing was also a “strong” $240,481, up over $70,000 from last July.
Data from July property tax collections was not available at the time of this report, but Shealy said the amount is most likely low and will likely substantially increase in September once property tax bills go out.
The town also just received just over $441,000 of the $800,000 expected from the federal American Rescue Plan funds. The rest will be awarded in about a year, according to Wyatt.
The town has two to three years to spend the money on infrastructure projects. Any funds not expended must be returned to Washington.
The council discussed various water and sewer needs at its annual and budget retreats, so this money can help bring those projects to fruition.
Council members praised Shealy’s long, excellent service to the town and wished him well in his upcoming retirement.
Recreation Director Emily Watson and Wyatt asked council to consider offering a wellness program to employees, which will help their overall health and potentially lower health insurance rates for the town.
About half of the employees expressed an interest in such a benefit.
Wyatt said Planet Fitness in Mooresville and Statesville offered a $17 per month program for each employee and one accompanying companion, which is less than $25 the nearby Iredell County Recreation Center charges for only the employee.
Wyatt noted that most employees live out of town, making the ICRC inconvenient for some.
Henkel requested that ICRC remain an option for those employees in Troutman.
After discussion, the council voted to pay for up to $30 per month per employee for a gym membership at the two Planet Fitness locations or ICRC, upon presentation of a receipt for reimbursement.
Council members also voted to contract with Payroll Pro Solutions in Mooresville for all payroll processing needs, time labor management, and human resource work such as job postings and online applications, new employee onboarding, benefit selection, and W2s.
Cost is $16.50 per month per employee, $10 per W2, and a one-time implementation fee of 25 percent of the first year’s total fees.
The company will input data and train employees to use the system beginning in October, with the Kronos software based services going live on January 1, 2022.
At the council’s annual retreat in March, Larry Power presented the services that his company offers to streamline the town’s payroll, human resources, job evaluations, recruiting, scheduling of leave, and benefits.
Iredell County, Food Lion, and 125 other area companies use Payroll Solutions to manage these functions. Wyatt called it “a tried and true system.” He noted the company could improve employee privacy and help with mandated accountability in record-keeping.
PUBLIC RECORDS FEES POLICY DEBATED
Wyatt said the town has had some “embarrassment” lately over a public records request policy (#52) passed by the council in January of 2019, previous to Wyatt’s tenure.
The policy addition of fees for staff time on extensive record requests occurred after the Planning Department began receiving huge record requests in 2018 that required extensive personnel time and hindered employees from doing their normal job duties.
For extensive record requests, NC Statute 132-6.2 allows municipalities to “charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special service charge, which shall be reasonable and shall be based on the actual cost incurred for such extensive use of information technology resources or the labor costs of the personnel providing the services.”
If a requester feels a fee is unfair, the State Chief Information Officer (CIO) can be contacted to mediate.
The questions about the new policy began when the town charged Dan Gitro of Firewire 360 $70 for a records request in 2020. Gitro accused the town of treating him differently for political reasons. Two other entities, including a media source and a law firm, had requests filled with no charge for staff hours in 2019.
Wyatt said the media request from reporter Jaime Gatton was “simple and quick,” requiring little staff time.
The law firm, Scarbrough, Scarbrough & Trilling, PLLC, paid $451.33 for paper copies, mileage to make copies, a flash drive and two CDs but refused to pay $490 for 14 hours of staff time, which the town accepted, though it violated the town’s policy.
Wyatt explained that after his arrival as town manager, the town attempted to recoup the $490 in staff time costs from the law firm, but Thomas negotiated to accept the materials cost only to avoid the legal fees in pursuing the rest.
Wyatt explained that Gitro’s request involved extensive record searches targeting multiple names and businesses, and the request required several hours of the town clerk’s technical expertise to get the records accurately and appropriately retrieved, as well as other staff members’ time. Legal review was also required.
Gitro objected to the policy and felt like he was singled out for the charge. Both Gatton and Gitro had gotten thousands of pages of documents from other municipalities at no charge and felt they were being treated differently.
Wyatt contacted the State CIO to ask if mediation could occur if Gitro had not requested it, but he could not give legal advice.
Wyatt has since met with both Gatton and Gitro and explained the policy’s intent. Both now realize nothing “nefarious” was intended, and Wyatt even offered to pay the town clerk’s hourly rate from his pocket so Gitro can get his requested records electronically.
“We’re surely not trying to hide anything from him or anyone else, but this policy has existed from 2019. I didn’t make it. I didn’t create it,” Wyatt said. “If it’s public information, we want people to have it.”
However, Wyatt does recommend the council now alter the policy.
The State CIO did say the state statute was vague, but he noted that the specific flat $35 fee per hour charge caused him “heartburn” since it was not an actual hourly employee rate charge.
Also, another statute gray area is determining what is considered outside an employee’s “normal duties” to fill public information requests.
Wyatt asked the council to correct the policy by removing the $35 per hour fee for undefined “custom services” and replace it with the actual employee hourly salary reimbursement rate if the request requires more than two hours to fulfill.
Thomas said other municipalities who have this charge begin it at four hours, but Wyatt argued that since the Troutman staff is small and the town clerk is a one-person department, over two hours of her time is excessive and interferes with her completing her normal duties.
Henkel agreed that a time limit was needed to avoid abuse and misuse while not discouraging legitimate public records requests. Nau agreed, saying it was not fair to the citizens of Troutman because “employees were not doing work for the people” when filling these requests, which are mostly from non-residents.
The council will vote on the changes on Thursday night at its regular August meeting.
NEW GREENWAY BANNERS
Council approved the purchase of three new banner designs: a new patriotic flag to replace the current deteriorating ones as well as a new fall leaf design and a spring design with Black-eyed Susans.
The banners are two-sided, with the “Town of Troutman” lettering only on one side. The banners will alternate the text side every other pole so both sides can be seen going north or south along the greenway.
According to the display calendar, the paddle logo will fly January through March, the spring flower design April through May, the flag design June through Labor Day, the fall leaf design September through October, and the Christmas banner November through December.
Council member Sally Williams requested that flags and bunting be displayed around Veteran’s Day at the Depot and Town Hall since the flag banners will not be up.
NEW PLANNING DEPARTMENT STAFF INTRODUCED
Wyatt introduced Town Planner Lynne Hair, who started on Monday, and Assistant Town Planner Andrew Ventresca to the council.
Hair, who recently moved to Mooresville, served as planning director for the Town of Stallings for the past 15 years.
Ventresca was most recently a senior planner with the Town of Davidson.
On its light agenda on Thursday night, the council will:
♦ Hear the second reading of the Goat and Livestock Keeping Ordinance and Text Amendment. Both passed by a 3-2 vote in July, but a second reading was required since they did not receive at least four votes.
♦ Consider an amendment to a greenway signage ordinance.
♦ Discuss Troutman Business Council bylaws changes.
♦ Hear the year-end ABC Store financial report.
♦ Re-appropriate 2020-2021 capital outlay funds ($561,749) approved in last year’s budget but not spent by June 30.