Pikeville Mayor Garrett Johnston is the first to admit his small town of 720 residents was in financial disarray and operational dysfunction when the Local Government Commission (LGC) exercised statutory authority to impound its books.
Through hard work, sharp focus on transparency and governance, and sheer determination, the Wayne County municipality has climbed out of that deep hole, and 20 months later has regained authority to handle its own finances. On Tuesday, Dec. 6, LGC members presented Mayor Johnston and Pikeville Town Commissioners with a ceremonial key to the city’s coffers to honor the accomplishment.
“It’s been an amazing year,” Mayor Johnston said. “As far back as when I took the chair last December, it was an absolute shambles. We’ve grown closer as a board. We’ve gone through a difficult battle together, and we’ve come out stronger and more cohesive, with better communication.”
The LGC, chaired by State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, CPA, and staffed by the Department of State Treasurer (DST), passed a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting to allow Town Commissioners and their properly designated fiscal officers to assume full control of all financial affairs. The LGC had voted to impound the town’s books on April 13, 2021. At the time Pikeville had only 4.8% of unrestricted available funds to meet its $765,000 budget and was in jeopardy of missing five payments totaling $158,000 of debt.
Mayor Johnston credited the LGC with helping to salvage the town from a downward spiral that potentially put its charter at risk.
“We had just a straight-up Jerry Springer show for board meetings. So, when I took office it was just a full embracing of all the services the LGC had to offer. I really fail to grasp why other towns wouldn’t take full advantage of what the LGC brings to the table. The accountability aspect can be a little scary but it’s a necessity,” he said.
“State personnel came in and straightened out all the mess that we created and left us in a wonderful place. We are a poster child of LGC success. I would be happy to be a spokesman to any town that’s being stubborn about working with the LGC because it’s a huge asset,” Mayor Johnston said.
Treasurer Folwell said Pikeville has demonstrated the best of North Carolina in its drive to restore financial self-determination.
“It is never our intention to interfere in local government functions, and we especially do not want to assume financial control of a municipality. But there are occasions when transparency, accountability and governance are lacking to a grave extent. Then we must step in to rescue troubled towns and cities and set them back on the path of good stewardship of the people’s tax dollars, and rebuild public confidence,” Treasurer Folwell said. “Pikeville and the LGC staff deserve all the credit for this rebound.”
“Pikeville showed exceptional resiliency and resolve, working in full cooperation with our staff to find out what’s right, get it right, and keep it right. We have provided town leaders with the skills, tools and information they need to excel, and we have every expectation that is what will happen going forward. This truly was a whole community effort, so residents and taxpayers share in this triumph,” Treasurer Folwell said. “Pikeville stands out as a shining example of attacking problems in a positive manner for maximum achievement.”
Mayor Johnston said Pikeville residents were fearful of the state taking control of town finances, and panicked over the prospect of losing the town’s charter, so they were supportive of the Board of Commissioners’ self-improvement efforts. He hosted an informational community meeting before assuming office that attracted about 1 in 10 town residents.
“I tried to encourage the public that the LGC coming in was a positive thing, that we were going to get books straight, we were going to learn how to do it, and maintain it,” Mayor Johnston said.
He said the LGC encouraged Pikeville officials to switch to a council-manager form of government, and he believes that has been an essential reform. With the addition of Tim Biggerstaff in that position, starting on Monday, Dec. 5, Mayor Johnston is optimistic about the future.
The LGC also worked to ensure town financial staff received proper training, and established mentorships for town officials to tap into to resolve issues and get answers to any concerns going forward, he said.
“It brought a real sense of security that we’ve got a real solid team behind us in getting our finances straight,” despite a trace of trepidation as the LGC pulls out of town, the mayor said. But he plans to continue a strong relationship with the LGC because he thinks the accountability is effective.
“We’re not talking about the past,” Mayor Johnston said. “We’re looking forward to the future.”