News: Quick Takes

Audit: Rocky Mount councilman failed to pay city $47,704 in utility bills

A CSX train passes through downtown Rocky Mount. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)
A CSX train passes through downtown Rocky Mount. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

Several Rocky Mount officials prevented the city’s utility payment office from attempting to collect $47,704 Mayor Pro-Tem Andre Knight owed in past due utility bills.

That’s the main finding of an investigative report issued Friday, May 15, by N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood. Wood’s office opened the investigation after getting more than 200 complaints from its hotline alleging misconduct by elected officials and employees of the City of Rocky Mount.

Knight, who has served on the council since 2003, was identified as the audit’s subject on Thursday by the Spring Hope Enterprise.

City utility services include water, wastewater, electricity, and natural gas.

Former city managers Charles Penny and Steve Raper and a former finance director prevented the city’s Business Services Center staff from cutting off Knight’s utility services or using other collection tools. Instead, the staff started writing off the $47,704 Knight owed. Knight, whose payment problems date from 2003, owns residential and commercial property in Rocky Mount.

In May 2013, city officials wrote off $11,096 Knight owed. In March 2017, they wrote off $36,608. As of January 2020, Knight owed $2,989 to the city for utility services.

Knight didn’t respond to Carolina Journal’s request for comment.

Other key findings:

  • Several downtown development managers failed to follow program guidelines, resulting in $32,452 in uncollected loans and $28,000 in improperly awarded funds. The Enterprise reported that Councilman Rueben Blackwell managed property that was part of the uncollected downtown development funds.
  • Former Mayor David Combs was a partner in a development company that got favorable treatment from the city’s Engineering Division. Violations from the city’s Code of Ordinances could cost the city $31,000.
  • City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney failed to comply with the city’s travel policy, resulting in $1,575 in unallowable travel expenses. These included 23 occasions when her meal expenses were higher than the allowable rate.

In its response, the city said its staff couldn’t verify the total write-off amount involving Knight. Moreover, “the account in question was subject to possible manipulation by unauthorized city staff for a good portion of the time that the write-offs covered.” The city said Knight wasn’t the only customer who got preferential treatment from staff.

“I think the audit brings to light the need for transparent and open government in Rocky Mount,” Councilman Lige Daughtridge told CJ. Daughtridge took office in December 2019, after Wood’s office began the investigation.

He said the city should require elected officials and senior staff to file statements of economic interest and the General Assembly should provide more oversight and guidance on local government ethics issues.