People opposed to Statesville's flag ordinance gather in front of City Hall Monday evening. 

The Statesville City Council decided to cease discussion of possibly privatizing the sanitation department. It also pushed the issue of handling the Gander RV flag for another meeting.

The two heated topics flared up during the public comment portion of Monday evening’s meeting.

Members, staff and supporters of the sanitation department attended, along with roughly two dozen people bearing American flag memorabilia to share their distaste for the city’s flag ordinance. Neither topic was on the council’s original agenda.

“The service provided by the sanitation department affects everyone that lives within the city limits of Statesville,” pastor Robin Williams said. “The city … has the responsibility of maintaining each department and ensuring that whatever is needed from the department, or departments, to run efficiently be provided.”

Williams referenced various needs of the sanitation department like new equipment, but also the high quality of service that citizens generally receive. She also noted a meeting Thursday night at Mac Gray auditorium, where around 40 people, including members of the City Council, pledged their support to keeping the sanitation department a public entity.

On the issue of the flag ordinance, Donny Bradley shared a written letter he had been passing out to members of the public before the meeting.

“The City Council performs three crucial functions that no other body can perform: representation, legislation and oversight,” he said. “If it fails to fill these roles adequately, Statesville loses.”

On the flag issue, multiple veterans also spoke, remarking that imposing limitations on the display of the American flag was an affront to their service. The Gander RV flag, which is 40 feet by 80 feet, has been in violation of the city ordinance concerning the permitted size of flags since October 2018. The city is currently in a legal case over the flag in which Gander RV is being fined $50 a day for being outside the ordinance. In the last meeting, the council voted against a proposed change to the ordinance.

Despite commentary on both issues, only the sanitation department was added to the agenda.

The council previously approved a budget June 3 by a 5-3 vote that reassigned $900,000, with some reserved in case of a desperate need in the months during the process that was planned to decide the sanitation department’s fate.

In meetings before that, Councilman Michael Johnson had asked the city to explore the possibility of privatizing sanitation, including waste and leaf collection. City staffers finished a request June 21 for proposals for taking over the sanitation needs of Statesville and was to receive proposals for about a month, City Manager Ron Smith said. The goal was to present options to council by Aug. 5.

“The request to investigate it is all that took place,” Mayor Costi Kutteh said Monday. “There was never any action whatsoever to cancel (the sanitation department.)…. I think that this same action could technically be requested of any of the departments of the city. We’re in a constant struggle to act more efficiently, so we pursued that request.”

He also noted that bids for possible contractors will be coming in until next week.

Councilman C.O. “Jap” Johnson said the council had performed an injustice against the sanitation workers by exploring privatization, mainly because it had not collectively voted to probe the issue, or taken time to recognize the sanitation department’s quality of service.

Michael Johnson tried to clarify that no jobs had ever been in danger and claimed that the issue had been severely blown out of proportion by hearsay.

“I don’t know how this situation has moved in the direction that it’s moved,” he said. “I want to say this to the employees of the sanitation department, and to all employees of the city of Statesville: We came through a recession (and) we never laid off anyone. I don’t think there are many governments that can make a comment like that during the worst recession in the history of our nation. And that was a concerted thought of every person on this council. And I will assure you that thought has not changed.”

He recanted some of the words he said when the idea of privatization arose.

“My words were that we would absorb through other departments every member of (the sanitation) department,” Johnson said. “It is our job to consider capital costs on this board, and I’m sorry if that offends, but that’s our role to do that. But regardless of what that is, there is no intention of any sanitation worker, any sanitation department employee, secretary, scribe (or) whatever losing their job. It has never been said. And if it has been reported to you that it has been said, I’m sorry for that.”

The transcript from council’s June 3 meeting shows he stated the following:

“…we are unfair to garbage people, the Sanitation folks that work for us, because we consider outsourcing rather than spending $3-4 million over the term of the next 5 years on equipment. I think those people expect us to make those kinds of judgments. It doesn’t mean you can’t absorb them into the system into other roles, but how are you going to continue to not look at that as another avenue in capital reduction. Capital costs are going up and we are not going to stop that.”

Councilman William Morgan Jr. said the work already done to probe possible options is part of the council’s responsibility to taxpayers.

“We are tasked with having the fiduciary responsibility to look at all alternatives to save the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

He explained he looked at several municipalities just know why they had privatized public services.

“When presented with the information, we can make an intelligent decision,” he said. “Right now, we are acting on emotion. No one wants to see anyone lose a job, and if that came down to it, I would vote against it. But at this point, I’d simply like to get the information that we asked for.”

He urged the council to delay a vote on the matter until more information had been provided.

Council members C.O. “Jap” Johnson, Doris Allison, Steve Johnson, John Staford and Keith Williams voted to halt discussions of privatization, ending weeks of uncertainty circling the sanitation department’s fate.

This decision keeps the sanitation a public service managed by the City of Statesville.

Other items tackled by council included:

» Presentation of Life Saving Awards to four firefighters for recent service.

» Receiving a report concerning compensation of city employees.

» Reappointing Michelle Rokes to the Statesville Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

» Adopting the Statesville Mobility and Development Plan.

» Approving a professional service agreement with WithersRavenel for designing a multi-use path on Shelton Avenue.

» Extending a resurfacing contract with J.T. Russell to include Division EE.

» And approving a decrease to retail electric rates by 1.7 percent.

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