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Resignation, with Regrets
"This was supposed to be my forever house"
February 26, 2024

T
his is supposed to be where I retire. I love this town.”

Andrew Cox, Public Works Director and Operator in Responsible Charge (ORC) of the Oriental Water Plant. He gave his resignation to Town Hall on Monday, February 19, with an end date of March 16, 2024.

Cox says it wasn’t an easy decision. “I live right down the street… this was supposed to be my forever house and my forever job.”

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Andrew ‘Drew’ Cox, Oriental’s current Public Works Director and ORC of the Water Plant.

In his letter to the Town, Cox cites staff shortages, discussions regarding staff cuts, and his inability to continue being an effective manager with the overload of two positions.

In an interview with TownDock.net, Cox explained further.

“It’s just the stress we’re under. I mean, it’s not just me. The guys are feeling it, too. Everybody feels unappreciated and they’re starting to… it’s messing with morale.”

Cox is referencing the rumors of staff cuts going around. “They were talking about making staff cuts, two in public works and one in the office. And this way [with Cox’s resignation] at least these guys are guaranteed their spots.”

The rumors of staff cuts were brought up by Mrs. Mary Ellen Ham and Commissioner Breena Litzenberger at the February 2024 Town Board meeting. Commissioner Bonnie Crosser, to whom Commissioner Litzenberger’s comments were directed, would not say she was not trying to cut the town’s staff.

“The main reason is I don’t believe that Commissioner Roe or Commissioner Crosser value the employees here. They just see them as objects,” Cox said. “They think we’ve been screwing things up around here instead of the jobs that we’ve been doing. And you can’t get them to listen about the water rates thing. They did something last year, but it’s a little bit too late.”

Cox went on to say that the town had spent significant money on upgrading the Water Plant and getting it back up to speed. Cox said, “this is going on probably the fourth year we’ve had a bare bones skeleton budget. Things are starting to go back down again. And it’s just an endless cycle, you know?”

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Drew Cox inside the Oriental Water Plant, testing samples.

In more populous places, Public Works has several divisions, says Cox. “Building maintenance, facility maintenance, road maintenance, maintaining right-of-ways.” And the Water Plant facilities.

Cox currently is currently the head of what would would be two departments in larger towns. And he’s sat for the tests and certifications it takes to hold the state Operator in Responsible Charge certifications. The schools can be tough, he says. Operators have to tackle concepts with complex math and formulae, understand the chemistry ad reactions of the chemical compounds they use, and demonstrate an understanding of hydrological concepts.

Cox holds a B Well Certificate – his third certification paid for by the town – and was scheduled to sit for his Maintenance Tech 4 certification, until the pandemic hit.

The next best certified employee the Town has is Daniel Early – he has a C Well Certification and can sit for the tests in 2025. Until then, the Town will need to contract out the job to someone with the proper certificates.

If the Town operates the Water Plant after March 16 without a B Well Certified ORC, Cox says “if they fail to put someone up the day after I leave, if the State wants to push for any kind of fines or anything – it can be up to $15,000 a day per license.”

In past Town Board Meetings, Commissioner Roe suggested Oriental give their water plant to the County to run. The reason? The State is moving to regionalize small water plants anyway, so the town should hand it over, save the money, and be done with it.

There’s a few problems with that. Pamlico County is just now starting an 18 month improvement plant to their water plant on Kershaw Road. “Out of all their towers and plants, that one produces more than 80% of their workload,” said Cox. “So if that’s down, I’m not even 100% sure they could sell water to us. And I don’t know that they would even accept the responsibility of taking our system on – they’re short of hands right now, too.”

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Drew was the Grand Marshall in the 2019 Croakerfest Parade – the one right after Hurricane Florence.

Luring qualified employees to the area presents another problem. Oriental was left with a Public Works position unfilled for over a year, because the town could not find qualified candidates. And those that did apply either didn’t complete the application or had items in their history preventing them from working for the Town.

That position was finally closed as out as a cost-saving measure. Cox and the other members of Public Works had to absorb those duties as well.

“All the stuff that a director or manager would do for the water plant, I also do that for Public Works. And since they cut out the position since Jesse left, I’ve been in the field for Public Works, back on my tools trying to keep the guys leveled out. That in itself is a lot of work.”

In 2022, the Board was going to purchase a multi-use excavator to help Public Works. “We had it all lined up, had a good deal on the excavator,” said Cox. “In the upcoming weeks before the Budget Retreat where we were going to hash all that out, somebody called the contractor and said it was no longer an option and he sold it to somebody else.”

Who was that somebody? No one came forth.

What could that machine have done for Public Works? “That could have been a joint machine. It could have done all our utility lines, any kind of replacements we need to do.” Cox went on to say it would have helped with ditches and culverts, “it could have done so much for Water.”

All the comparable machinery Public Works has are too large, the hydraulics and buckets not meant for the smaller detailed work the excavator could have accomplished with less time.

“It’s getting to where I don’t like coming to work because of the people I have to deal with.” And Cox is not talking about his fellow Public Works employees.

In addition to the low morale, the feeling of constant scrutiny, and the uncertainty of job security, there’s the lack of communication. Cox, as the Water Plant ORC, is part of the Water Advisory Board. That Board is meant to oversee the spending of the $5.5 million received from the state towards the water plant.

Though he’s a main component of the Board, and the linchpin to answering the ORC questions on the grant, as well as providing information on all the systems he’s upgraded and rehabbed for the last 11 plus years, Cox has never been to a meeting.

“The first meeting they had, they scheduled while I was out of town,” he said. “The second meeting they scheduled without telling me until two days before, and I’ve got bi-weekly testing I have to do for the state. And we have a third-party lab come out here and it costs a good amount of money to do that.”

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A look over Drew’s shoulder while he reads the meter.

Cox has to accompany the lab technician around to the water sites for collection, and perform the state required testing. It happens on the same day, about the same time, every two weeks. “I can’t get out of that. And they had it scheduled for that day at that exact time.” When asked if he’d been consulted about his availability, Cox said simply, “No, ma’am.”

Though Cox was willing to try and keep his head down – he did want to retire in Oriental – there was eventually the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “The fact that I’m on a salary position and they have issues about me taking my son to school.”

Cox is particularly put out with this line of questioning, as he’s given a lot to the town. After Hurricane Florence wiped out the house he and his family had been renting, the Cox family lived at Town Hall.

During that time, Cox and the employees of Public Works “worked nine days straight” to keep the town and the water plant running.

As for the questions about Cox taking his child to school in the first place – that stems from the inquiries of Commissioner Bonnie Crosser acting as the financial liaison.

The position existed in 2011, when the town operated under a Mayor-Council (aka Commissioner) government structure. It was resurrected by Commissioner Bonnie Crosser, against the legal advice of both the Town’s Lawyer and the League of Municipalities. Objections she cited in an email to other Commissioners.

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Drew Cox.

TownDock.net made a request to the Town for documents pertaining to this issue, including meetings minutes from 2011 and 2012, to see where the financial liaison position disappeared over the years. (Those documents are listed at the end of the article.)

The November 11, 2011 meeting minutes record a motion from Commissioner Candy Bohmert to “restore our council-manager form of government to have the manager report to the Board.” The motion passed in a 5-0 vote.

At the January 2012 workshop, the then Town Manager gave a presentation explaining “the role each person plays in his/her work for the town including both volunteer board members and town staff” and “Proper chain of command and tiers of communication.”

The slides included information from the UNC School of Government outlining the roles of the Mayor, the Council (Commissioners), and the Manager, as well as the expectations for each of them. A section of one of the handouts titled “Eight expectations for Effective Council-Manager Relations” explains how to manage relationships.

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From a January 2012 workshop, a worksheet explains the roles under Oriental’s newly adopted Manager-Council form of government.

Town Commissioners have not been known to become involved in the minutia of town employees’ jobs. According to town employees, now they are. It has already cost Oriental two key staff positions and the institutional knowledge of over a decade of work. It’s about to cost a lot more.

Related Documents

Posted Monday February 26, 2024 by Allison DeWeese


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