Zebulon was as newsy as it gets in 2013

amoody@newsobserver.comDecember 30, 2013 

— What were the top happenings in the Town of Friendly People in 2013? Well, how much time do you have?

You could sum things up by saying residents got the same amount of bang for more of their bucks, Zebulon’s already tight budget shrank even more and some stories we reported were about as bizarre as ever before.

Of course, that’d just be scratching at the surface. To be a bit more thorough, the following list provides a look back at some of the more meaty headlines from Zebulon over the last year.

8. Zebulon man wins $1.1 million NC Lottery prize: OK, OK, so this isn’t news that affects a bunch of people. But holy cow, Homer Buffaloe, what is your secret? In March, the local tobacco farmer won more than $1.1 million in the Carolina Cash 5 lottery game, the largest amount ever won by a single ticket, and it wasn’t the first time he had purchased a winning Cash 5 ticket from the One Stop Shop gas station on Mitchell Mill Road. In November 2010, Buffaloe claimed half of a $408,066 jackpot. Add that to his most recent winnings of $1,144,821 and he’s made more than $1.5 million playing the Cash 5 game at the gas station just a half-mile from his house. He collected a cool $778,479 when he hit in March, after state and federal taxes were withheld.

7. New faces in town leadership: The Zebulon Fire Department saw a significant changing of the guard but it all stayed in the family, literally, when Chris Perry replaced his father Sidney Perry as chief in March. Consider it a fair trade – Sidney was ready to retire after 46 years, holding several positions for the Town of Zebulon, and Chris has been part of the Zebulon department for 26 years while also working for Johnston and Wake counties. In the finance sector, former assistant director Bobby Fitts took over as department head in April. He replaced Emily Lucas, who ended a long tenure in Zebulon when she took the job of finance chief in Garner earlier in the year. And in November, Glenn York was elected in his second try running for commissioner, bringing a new face to the town board for the first time in several terms.

7. Two bank robberies: A man entered the PNC Bank on Arendell Avenue in downtown on Dec. 16, demanded money and got away with an undisclosed amount of cash without ever indicating he had a weapon. While that’s been an ongoing investigation for local police, another man in May set a better example on how not to rob a bank. Rule No. 1, look across the street and make sure there’s not a police station. Zebulon officers arrested Richard Gardner Ennis, of Knightdale, before he ever exited the First Citizens Bank on Wakelon Drive. And since he never obtained any money and didn’t have a weapon he was charged with attempted common law robbery. Fast-forward to October, Ennis held Wendell police at bay for 90 minutes, barricading himself in an apartment after police approached him in response to a report of a man carrying a rifle in the Cedarfield Apartment complex. He went on to surrender without incident and faced several charges, including burglary and resisting arrest.

5. Expenses increased for residents: Town leaders had to pass a budget under the assumption they’d be losing a major revenue stream, and ultimately the burden of making up for the loss fell on taxpayers. The new tax rate is 52.5 cents per $100 of property value, a 2.4 percent increase. A resident with property valued at $150,000 now pays $787.50 in town taxes and a total of $1,588.50 including county taxes. Town leaders had few other options. Town expenses and services had already been cut in recent years. And the tax increase was needed to keep the budget afloat despite the freezing of four vacant positions between the Zebulon Public Works and Police departments, producing a savings of about $195,000 in fiscal year 2014. Zebulon utility rates also increased by 5.5 percent in accordance with the town’s water and sewer merger agreement with Raleigh. The increase equaled $5.32 per month for customers using 5,000 gallons of water.

4. Overlay district applied to downtown: It’s like an extra set of ordinances laid over the top of the existing rules for properties inside a set zone, commonly used to govern appearance standards for new development. Commissioners approved the overlay district in June, ending a two-plus-year span since a study group, composed mostly of downtown business owners, began researching the need and value of an overlay district for Zebulon. That doesn’t mean everything is more strict for merchants in downtown. The majority of Zebulon’s new regulations actually relax preexisting development standards, intending to encourage redevelopment. However, the overlay ordinance does include several updates to appearance standards. Don’t worry, homeowners – the overlay rules only applies to non-residential development and redevelopment.

3. State budget includes extra $200K for Zebulon: This is kind of like a “smile, but don’t shed happy tears” situation. Zebulon had been receiving about $400,000 (about 5 percent of its budget) in so-called “hold harmless” funds, designed to help the more than 100 municipalities that haven’t financially recovered from the legislature’s 1988 decision to repeal the inventory tax. State lawmakers enacted the 10-year payment program in 2002 thinking that would provide enough time for municipalities for to shift their dependence to recurring revenues streams. But for many, it didn’t. Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny joined other leaders from across the state to lobby for an extension of the funds. It resulted in a one-time payment of $5 million, about half the amount the total allocation would have equaled. Matheny was grateful for the $200,000 Zebulon was projected to receive. Of course, some damage had already been done by the time the extension was approved. The issue delayed passage of the state budget by nearly a month. Since municipalities by law must pass their budgets by July 1, Zebulon had to adopt its budget under the assumption hold harmless funding would not be extended – and raise taxes to make up for the potential loss of funding.

2. Mayoral candidate clashes with police: Richard Poole, who recently lost a bid for the Zebulon mayoral seat, kept the local law busy throughout the middle of the year. Poole’s saga began in May, when police charged him with ethnic intimidation after he allegedly used racial slurs to verbally abuse a black man working on a nearby house. When the man, Bobby Jones, attempted to flee the confrontation, police Chief Tim Hayworth said Poole, who is white, followed Jones in his pickup and threatened him with a billy club. A judge on July 18 found Poole not guilty of the ethnic intimidation charge. On June 27, police arrested Poole at Walmart on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting a police officer. According to the magistrate’s order, Poole was trying to provoke a fight with a customer. When Zebulon police officer Eric Anderson attempted to intervene, Poole got in his car and “floored the gas narrowly missing hitting Anderson with his vehicle,” the magistrate’s order says. On July 25, Poole added more charges of resisting a law enforcement officer and disorderly conduct after barricading himself in his home at 615 Sexton Ave. for more than three hours while officers attempted to serve mental health papers on him. Police said Poole virtually destroyed the inside of his house. His wife, Lynda Poole, had filed paperwork to commit him to a mental hospital that same day after he threatened to kill her and their adult son who lives in Wendell, according to Hayworth. On Aug. 27, Raleigh police arrested Poole for violating the protective order.

1. Headmaster scandal results in charges: In September, after about seven hours of deliberation, a Wake County jury found former East Wake Academy headmaster Brandon Smith guilty on one charge of sexual battery and one charge of assault on a female involving two teachers at the school. For the charges he was convicted of, Smith was issued 120 days in county jail and will have to register as a sex offender for 30 years. One of the women pressing charges claimed Smith pulled her pants down to reveal a tattoo on her lower back in August 2011, after years of sexually explicit comments and other inappropriate behavior. The other woman claimed she experienced similar behavior, culminating in a hug in which she could feel that Smith was physically aroused in November 2011. Smith faced another sexual battery and assault charge but the jury was hung on those charges. The court declared a mistrial and it will be up to the district attorney to bring those back to court. The two women in Smith’s criminal case filed complaints with the board of East Wake Academy, but also took their complaints to Zebulon police. They also have a pending civil case against East Wake Academy and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC ruled the school was in violation of certain statutes regarding employment discrimination.

There are other noteworthy items not on this list, and they do deserve mentioning. The sidewalk project between the Zebulon Boys & Girls Club and middle school has been delayed a second time. The town is seeing some action in the sale of its former office spaces in downtown after drastically cutting its asking prices, and town leaders are reconsidering the short-term use of their former council chambers. There was the string of embezzlement cases cracked at the local Verizon store and several marijuana busts over the summer months. And there’s been talk of an arts center in Zebulon, and local interest groups continue to be hands-on in their effort to beautify downtown.

Moody: 919-829-4806; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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