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City looks to digital future

The city is likely to continue expanding digital services following the COVID-19 pandemic, City Manager Hal Hegwer said recently.

During a report to the city council last week, Hegwer talked about administrative changes the city has implemented since the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March.

“COVID-19 has accelerated digital government,” he said. “This will be one of the real inflection points in history. We will probably not see things go back exactly like they were.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down public offices in Sanford, city officials have seen a large increase in people using online government services, Hegwer said.

Even after city hall reopened Aug. 3, the number of people walking in to pay their water or sewer bills continued to be low, said Finance Department Director Beth Kelly. The number of online payments increased by more than 6,500 over past year, Kelly reported.

The number of payments through the city’s interactive voice response system also jumped. The system, where people can call a number and give their information to a computer at any time, was first implemented last year. Since January, there have been more than 14,144 payments through that system, Kelly said. The city has also seen an increase in drop-box payments.

“At one time, everybody had to come into city hall to set up a water, sewer account or utility account,” Hegwer said. “That’s all in the past.”

The city also recently moved much of its permitting system online, allowing people to apply and receive permits for plumbing, mechanical and electrical work via the computer, Hegwer said. That was a move that was in the works before the coronavirus pandemic, he said, but has been a big help in the past few months in keeping economic development and construction projects on track.

“One of the things we’re gonna be looking for in the future is that all building permits could go virtual and online,” Hegwer said. “We’ve got some software and other modifications to make going forward, but that’s something I think you’re gonna see in this upcoming budget.”

The city is also likely to continue offering flexible and work-at-home options for employees, Hegwer said. Although city offices have reopened, allowing certain employees to control their own hours and schedule has been working well, Hegwer said.

Planning and Development Department Director Marshall Downey said that most city inspection and code enforcement staff spend 90% of their time in the field.

“I think that’s the model for the future,” Downey said. “We have folks who work mostly remotely, who may come in one day a week, but they can work and do their job, and have been doing it efficiently for the better part of six months to a year now.

“It’s works during COVID and could work post-COVID.”

County's COVID-19 cases continue to rise

The number of COVID-19 cases in Lee County continues to climb with 156 new cases confirmed since Thursday.

That brings to 3,183 the total number of cases here since the first was reported in March. Thirty-eight people here have died from the coronavirus, according to the Lee County Health Department.

The rolling seven-day average for new cases in the county is 34 while the percentage of positive tests is 12.8%, according to a health department news release.

The majority of the county’s cases, 64%, have been reported among whites while the rate is 17% for Blacks, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Hispanics account for 45% of cases, the numbers show.

By age, individuals 25 to 49 are reporting the highest number of cases with 1,239, or 40%, followed by those ages 50 to 64 with 706 cases or 23%, NCDHHS reports.

The coronavirus is proving more fatal to those ages 75 and older.

The state reported 4,479 new cases on Monday bringing the total since March to 483,647, NCDHHS reported. Hospitalizations stood at 2,817 and the virus has claimed the lives of 6,240 North Carolinians.

Community testing will be available at the Piggly Wiggly in Broadway on Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Also Sunday, CVS Health will begin administering Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccinations at 899 skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in North Carolina, according to a news release.

The Centers for Disease for Control reported a total of 17,790,376 COVID-19 cases nationwide on Monday and nearly 317,000 Americans have died.

CCCC scholarship to honor memory of Jason Arnold

The mother of a Black man killed in July is working to set up a scholarship in his honor at Central Carolina Community College.

The Jason Arnold Black Lives Matter Scholarship is in honor of Sharon Johnson’s 45-year-old son, gunned down July 5 on Crestview Street in Sanford.

“He liked to help people and I feel like he would appreciate that he’s helping someone else,” Johnson said.

“He knew that education meant a lot to people and it meant a lot to me.”

The goal is to raise $10,000 to create an endowment, according to Emily Hare, executive director of the CCCC Foundation, which is overseeing the private donations for the fund.

“We believe education is the way to help improve a community and that’s what (Sharon) wants to do,” Hare said.

Jason Arnold, one of twin brothers, was pursuing a career in the hospitality industry and was working as an Airbnb host at the time of his death.

Johnson said she chose the name of the scholarship to show young Black men they are important and there is promise for them.

Her son was not killed by law enforcement or a stranger, she said, but by someone he knew. Franklin Deon Dorsett, 35, is charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in the slaying.

The number of Black men killed by gun violence continues to remain high, she said, and it’s time to take action.

Johnson hopes that the first Black Lives Matter Scholarship can be a catalyst for change and that deserving young Black men can pursue an education with the help of the funds.

The pain of Jason’s death is still fresh for Johnson and his sister, Helen Jones, especially during the holidays.

“Although Jason is no longer here, the scholarship will be a wonderful memory for his children and might steer some young man in the right direction. A pathway to an education rather than a pathway to a burial ground,” Margaret Murchison, a Foundation board member, wrote in a news release.

Donations in Jason’s memory can be made to the Central Carolina Community College Foundation. Go to cccc.edu/foundation/giving for more information.