Commission approves COVID leave, “Grow Hoke” plans

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke County local government employees will get 80 hours of paid leave time next year in case they have to take time off work due to COVID-19.

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners approved the proposal Monday night at its regularly scheduled board meeting, which was the last one for the year.

The paid leave is a measure meant to help keep people healthy and offer some flexibility in a time of uncertainty. From the start of the pandemic, the county has told its employees to stay home if they feel ill, County Manager Letitia Edens said. However, without access to paid time off, that can put a financial strain on families.

“We still want our employees to stay home when they’re sick. Employees are not going to stay home when they’re sick if they don’t get paid,” she said Monday at the meeting.

The 80 hours of COVID-19 leave is specifically for pandemic-related absences, such as needing to take time to get tested or quarantine, or if a parent must stay at home with a child due to a virus-related school closure.

Department leaders will be strict about how employees use those hours, Edens said. County employees will have to provide evidence of their need to use the COVID-19 leave time, such as a note from a doctor or other proof that they underwent a coronavirus test.

Commission Vice Chairman Allen Thomas praised the county for being “ahead of the game” with the policy.

“I think we’re doing all we can to show our employees we appreciate them and that we’re doing everything we can to make sure they’re safe,” he said.

Commission Chairman Harry Southerland also noted at the meeting that the United States Congress recently passed a $900 billion relief act, which will offer support in the form of $600 stimulus checks for many Americans, an extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits and some rental assistance.

Southerland said the commissioners have been getting daily phone calls from Hoke citizens facing tough financial circumstances due to the pandemic, and praised federal legislators for passing the bill.

“I want to publicly thank Congress for making that decision to help us out on a local level,” he said in comments at the meeting.

<02>County opts for on-site supervisor

<01>When construction starts on expanding sewer and water service on U.S. 401 as part of the “Grow Hoke” project, it will have a full-time supervisor to oversee the work and make sure it’s done correctly.

The commissioners approved a plan for the work that includes hiring a full-time construction inspector, as recommended by the county utilities committee. The inspector will cost the county more at working 40 hours a week rather than a part-time schedule of about 16 hours a week. The total amount is roughly $193,000 to $220,000, versus the cheaper option of $77,000 to $88,000.

Commissioner Tony Hunt, who serves on the utilities committee, supported the measure. Hunt explained in comments that the extra cost is worth it because the project requires burying pipes between 13 and 15 feet deep, and will go through wetlands areas, which takes considerable care and effort.

“The majority of that project is going to be spent down in that swamp getting through those wetlands,” Hunt said. “We wanted those hours in there because of all the time that it was going to take to get out of that swamp and all the work that is going to need to be done.”

The board unanimously approved the proposal by Locklear, Locklear and Jacobs for the project. The utilities expansion is being paid for with grant funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation.

“Grow Hoke” will expand sewer and water service in East Hoke, and will provide services to the in-development James Leach Recreation and Aquatics Center, set for construction on U.S. 401. The center will feature indoor gyms and the county’s first public swimming pool.

The utilities expansion will also help open up the U.S. 401 corridor to more future development, Southerland said.

“We want to make sure that the growth we are planning is done right and that starts with infrastructure,” he said. “…This is the foundation so to speak of us moving 401 forward.”

<02>Other business

<01>In other business, the commissioners approved Joe Alston to the Hoke County Planning Board. The board also agreed to donate additional personal protective equipment (PPE) kits left over from a public giveaway, to the county’s fire departments.

The commission adjourned for the year, with the next meeting set for January.

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