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Cost of last week's flooding across NC remains unknown

State and local officials are assessing flood and wind damage from heavy rainfall and strong winds that pummeled most of North Carolina and the Southeast last week.

Forecasters say more rain is expected this week in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.

The N.C. Division of Emergency Management didn’t have any damage estimates Monday from last week’s storms, said Keith Acree, an agency spokesman. State emergency management officials are available to help local officials with their preliminary damage assessments.

“Local communities are still assessing their damage,” Acree said.

The heavy rainfall and strong winds flooded homes, backyards and roads, and toppled trees and branches, causing nearly 100,000 power outages throughout the state. Flooding, downed trees and utility lines forced the N.C. Department of Transportation to close roads and bridges last week in Forsyth, Davidson, Guilford, Yadkin, Stokes, Wilkes, Watauga, Ashe, Surry and Alleghany counties.

The storms are being blamed for the deaths of five people in Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Terry Roger Fisher, 73, of Gaston County died in a storm-related crash Thursday.

Fisher was driving his pickup, which hydroplaned in heavy rain, plunged down a 25-foot embankment and overturned in a creek, the N.C. Highway Patrol said. Fisher was pronounced dead at the scene.

Officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation will assess the damage to flood-ravaged roads and bridges before they estimate the amount of damage to them, said Aaron Moody, a DOT spokesman.

“It just takes time,” Moody said.

A tornado that touched down 4 miles west of Liberty in Randolph County destroyed an unoccupied chicken coop and damaged a large farm outbuilding, the weather service said. The tornado also damaged a garage, which collapsed.

Jared Byrd, the deputy director of the Randolph County Emergency Services, said Monday that he didn’t have an immediate estimate of that damage. Strong winds also damaged 15 to 20 homes in Randolph County.

A male resident was severely injured Friday in Randleman when a large tree limb fell on him, Byrd said. The resident was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries. Byrd declined to identify the victim, citing federal medical privacy laws.

The Yadkin River, which flooded areas in Yadkin, Davie and Forsyth counties last week, has receded back into its banks, according to the National Weather Service. Creeks and streams also flooded areas in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.

Officials in Yadkin County are assessing damage from flooding and the strong winds, including checking 14 earthen dams, said Lisa Hughes, the Yadkin County manager. Floodwater damaged two fields at the Yadkin County Park at 6500 Service Road, which is next to the Yadkin Family YMCA.

Yadkin officials didn’t have an accurate appraisal of the damage on Monday, Hughes said.

Officials in Davie County and Elkin said their areas had no widespread flood or wind damage.

As residents recover from the damage from last week’s storms in the Triad and northwestern counties, another round of rain is heading their way this week, forecasters say.

Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico will combine with a slow-moving cold front across the central United States to produce widespread moderate to heavy rain in the mid-Atlantic states, including North Carolina, the weather service said.

Beginning today, a strong chance of rain exists for Winston-Salem, Mount Airy and Boone with high temperatures ranging from near 63 degrees in Forsyth County, near 64 degrees in Surry County and near 55 degrees in Watauga County. Today’s low temperatures will range from around 45 degrees in Winston-Salem and around 42 degrees in Mount Airy with a 30% chance of rain in both cities.

The low temperature tonight in Boone will be around 41 degrees with a 50% chance of rain.

IMAGES: Water rescue and flooding in and around Winston-Salem
Photos: Day 2 of flooding in Forsyth

Candidates for Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court tout experience.

Experience is the key theme coursing through the campaigns of the two women running in the Democratic primary for Forsyth County Clerk of Court.

Renita Thompkins Linville is the incumbent, having been appointed in July 2019 to complete the unexpired term of Susan Frye, who retired last year. She became the first black person to hold the position.

Running against Linville is Denise Hines, Forsyth County’s chief magistrate. Hines is also black.

No Republican is running in the race, which means the winner of the Democratic primary on March 3 will take the office without going into the general election. Early voting begins Thursday, and people will not have to show a photo ID to cast a ballot in the primary election.

Hines, 47, has been chief magistrate since October 2018. She has a law degree from UNC Chapel Hill and has taught in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system. She started working for the magistrate’s office in 2015.

She always knew she wanted to work in the field of law but held off for a number of years to be a stay-at-home mother to her three sons until the youngest one started kindergarten. Then she began working in education so that she could have the same schedule as her children.

She said she decided to run for the office after Frye announced her retirement.

“When Susan Frye retired, I was concerned that the quality of service that I would want for the community was not going to be what I thought it should be,” she said. “Working in public services, you’re going to have challenges, challenges with staffing. I was concerned that the challenges of those issues would not be adequately addressed.”

Hines touts her five years working in the magistrate’s office, including at least two years as chief magistrate, as the kind of experience needed to understand how things work at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.

Hines said she wants staff in the clerk’s office trained so that they can tell residents about services available online.

“It makes no sense that people would have to travel to the courthouse and not know they could pay a ticket online,” she said. “For example, when someone has an infraction for expired inspection or insurance, you can upload the documents proving that you have fixed the problems and get the ticket dismissed. We need to make sure that the public is aware of those services.”

Many people also aren’t aware that they could get a reminder from the court system so that they don’t miss a court date, Hines said.

She said people should vote for her because she believes she has the experience in the operational side of the judicial system and can hit the road running if she is elected.

Linville, 61, said she is qualified based on her 36 years of practicing law in Winston-Salem in a number of areas, including civil, family law, criminal and traffic.

“I do believe I have the right experience as a servant leader,” she said. “As a problem solver for 36 years, that’s what I did — I solved problems.”

In the past six months in office, Linville said she has learned more about how the clerk’s office works. Linville also said she has worked on a program that will debut in the spring that will help people get their driver’s license back.

Linville said she has worked with a group that includes Assistant City Manager Tasha Logan Ford and Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin. The program would be a division of the clerk’s office and is modeled on a program in Durham called the Durham Expunction and Restoration Clinic (DEAR).

Linville said many people end up in a cycle in which they lose their driver’s license because they cannot pay the fines, and then more charges and fines pile up because they still need to drive in order to make a living.

She also said she has expanded staffing for the Veterans Treatment Court and made it a division of the clerk’s office. The coordinator for the program is now a full-time staffer in the clerk’s office, she said.

The program, which helps veterans who are charged with criminal offenses, is important to Linville because she said both her father and her uncle served in the military.

Among her priorities if elected would be making people aware of the clerk of court’s website, making sure staff members are trained and provide good service and preparing young people for careers in public service by working with the school system and Forsyth Technical Community College.

The winner of the March 2 primary would serve a four-year term and oversee a staff of more than 90 employees.

Sexton: Locals not likely to play shell games with sales tax proceeds and schools funding

Hard as it is to read — and even more difficult to swallow — the bitter truth about the most important question on Forsyth County ballots boils down to an old Ronald Reagan laugh line.

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

And yet here we are.

The last question on a busy ballot lays out the question yet leaves out key information.

To wit: “Forsyth County Local Sales and Use Tax … at the rate of one quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes.”

The short translation, sold on the solemn (and unanimous) promise of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is that if you, the voters, agree to a local sales tax increase of 0.25% — a literal quarter on a $100 purchase — they’ll use the money to give teachers a raise.

The trouble is there’s no mechanism that guarantees the money will always go to teachers. We just have to have faith that local elected officials will be as good as their word.

I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

Natural skepticism

Though the ballot question about a local option sales tax increase is essentially a simple For or Against proposition — Who could seriously argue against bumping teacher pay? — selling it has run headlong into a few obstacles, not the least of which is the fact that some local voters’ long memories are hearing echoes of old arguments from state legislators who, when pitching a state lottery, promised that the money would go to schools as a supplement rather than a substitute.

When the North Carolina Education Lottery Act was passed in 2005, 35% of the proceeds were required to go toward education — school construction, early childhood education and reducing class size were three big talking points.

Two years later, the honorables made a subtle but important change in the language of the lottery law. The 35% spending threshold went from an ironclad “requirement” of law to a mere “guideline” for legislators to follow.

Once that distinction took hold, the percentage went down. Shocking, I know. Instead of 35% of revenue, the number dipped to 26%.

Equally surprising — or perhaps not — is that how the money is spent has changed, too.

In fiscal ’07, the first year lottery proceeds were available, 40% went to school construction and 30% to classroom teachers. In fiscal ’17, the most recent year available online, 63% went to pay for non-instructional support personnel and 17% for school construction.

That’s not exactly what was promised.

Fair or not, those sorts of shell games are on the minds of voters asked to decide the local option sales tax.

“That’s tied into it,” said Rita Fleming, a reader and clear-thinking taxpayer.“I’m all for paying teachers more money, but we have no guarantees and if the money is going into a general fund, I can’t vote for something if I can’t be assured of how the money is going to be spent.”

It’s the law

Commissioners voted to back the local sales tax referendum and swore they’d spend the additional revenue on giving teachers a local supplement of between $2,000 and $3,000.

Problem is, commissioners can only promise to do the right thing. State law prevents them from creating a separate pot of money for teacher raises outside the county’s general fund.

“My understanding is that it’s state law. We can’t really designate what it’s for,” said Gayle Anderson, a retired president and chief executive of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce who’s working to build support for the local option. “It’s our biggest roadblock.”

The safeguard is that the local option is a local matter, and there are only seven commissioners. And they all live here.

A state legislator from Randolph County might have little compunction about reneging on a promise not to screw somebody in Charlotte, but it’s harder to do if the guy you’ve misled sits in the next pew in church.

“If (commissioners) don’t do it, vote ‘em out,” Anderson said. “It’s really the only recourse.”

Another hurdle, albeit a lower bar, is making sure voters understand that lottery money has nothing to do with paying classroom teachers.

That comes from state revenue — individual income and corporate tax, sales tax and various fees — and a ¼ cent local option sales tax would be an addition that applies only in Forsyth County. And it’s estimated to bring in more than $14.3 million by 2025.

“This might be our only shot at giving teachers a raise,” Anderson said. “As long as this group honors the pledge, we’ll be fine. I’ve worked with (commissioners) a good long while and I believe they will.”

I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

We have no choice but to take commissioners at their word. In this case, they’re sure to do the right thing.

Trump administration proposes removing tobacco oversight from FDA

The Trump administration’s relationship with tobacco could take another intriguing twist with Monday’s news that it is recommending removing oversight from the Food and Drug Administration.

The White House’s 2020-21 budget recommendations include shifting the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products into a separate agency with its own director within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The proposal says that “a new agency with the singular mission on tobacco and its impact on public health would have greater capacity to respond strategically to the growing complexity of new tobacco products.

“In addition, this reorganization would allow the FDA commissioner to focus on its traditional mission of ensuring the safety of the nation’s food and medical products supply.”

The FDA was handed oversight of the industry by Congress in June 2009 — early in the Obama administration — through the Tobacco Control Act.

Given current Democratic control of the U.S. House, it is unlikely the proposal would clear Congress.

The risk with an FDA “seal of approval” for electronic and heat-not-burn cigarettes and snus is that it would be perceived that the tobacoo products are appropriate to consume, rather than being less harmful than traditional-cigarette products that contribute annually to more than 400,000 premature deaths in the U.S. alone.

The FDA was given the authority to: remove ingredients considered as hazardous; restrict the marketing and distribution of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco; focus on limiting the impact of advertising on youth; expand warning labels; and stop the use of such characterizations as “light” or “low tar.”

Until the past six months, the FDA had been accused by public-health advocates of dragging its feet in creating and enforcing heightened regulations.

In September, President Donald Trump pushed for significantly tighter FDA regulations over tobacco, though within weeks he softened his appeal after getting feedback from vapers and small business owners. Multiple media reports have said that Trump told HHS Secretary Alex Azar that getting personally involved in the vaping issue had been a mistake.

The Hill reported Monday that Joe Grogan, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said in November he considers tobacco regulation was a “huge waste of time” for the FDA.

“Tobacco has no redeeming qualities and it should not be regulated by a health agency like this ... (It is a) huge distraction.”

Trump takes office

When Trump was elected president in November 2016, an era of federal deregulation was projected for many industry sectors, particularly tobacco.

The FDA was projected to shift into lower gear, if not halt, its slow-walk of asserting its regulatory authority.

Instead, the FDA accomplished in the past two months two once-improbable goals sought by public-health and anti-tobacco advocacy groups:

Congress and Trump approved raising the federal minimum age for buying and consuming tobacco products from 18 to 21, effective Dec. 20.

The FDA established a ban — potentially temporarily — on flavored closed/cartridge electronic-cigarette products outside menthol and tobacco that went into effect Feb. 6.

The FDA also determined that makers of nicotine liquids are manufacturers, and thus required to submit a premarket application by a federal court-mandated May 12 deadline in order to be included in a 12-month FDA review process.

The premarket standard requires the FDA to consider products’ existing risks and benefits to the population as a whole, including users and non-users, particularly as it compares with traditional cigarettes.

If e-liquid manufacturers don’t apply, their products would be deemed as illegal to sell. However, being in the process allows their product to stay in the marketplace for up to a year during the review process.

The nicotine liquids for use with open-pod e-cigarettes will remain available for now in tobacco and vape shops — in large part because FDA and other Trump administration officials believe those products lack appeal to individuals under age 21, and that those shops are more responsible at age-verification policies than other retail outlets.

Gregory Conley, president of American Vaping Association, had warned small vape shops dependent on large nicotine-liquid makers could begin closing in mid-May from lack of product from legal sources.

The FDA has estimated the review cost at about $500,000 per application, while analysts, industry officials and advocates have said for years it could cost millions of dollars for each product to go through the pre-market regulatory pipeline.

However, Azar has since said that the FDA does not plan to close vape shops and small vaping companies, and that it will “streamline approval” for those groups.

Timing challenged

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids criticized the proposal, calling it “the wrong idea at the wrong time.”

“By disrupting the current structure for regulating tobacco products, this proposal is a recipe for delay and distraction at precisely the time when the FDA must take decisive action to remove the many flavored e-cigarette products that are still on the market and when the FDA is about to begin its first-ever review of e-cigarettes,” said Matthew Myers, the campaign’s president.

Conley said Monday that “it has become clear that adding yet another division to an already overworked FDA was a poor policy choice.”

“This proposal by the Trump Administration could be a signal that Azar is serious about streamlining the regulatory process for vaping products to keep thousands of small businesses from going under in the coming months.”

“Accomplishing this will require a lot of hard work and dedication, so it would be helpful to have someone new whose sole job is to focus on tobacco and nicotine regulation.”