Probe seeks details about utilities issue|Copies of e-mails, relevant documents on matter requested

Published 8:12 pm Sunday, September 27, 2009

Contributing Editor

The Washington Daily News is investigating whether a nonprofit organization with ties to Washington Councilman Darwin Woolard is or has been significantly delinquent in paying its utilities bill with Washington Electric Utilities.
The newspaper received information that the Potter’s House of Beaufort County — its Web site lists Woolard as its head of school — is or was several thousands of dollars in arrears. Potter’s House provides assistance to “at-risk” youth, including those with learning deficiencies, educational and/or economic disadvantages or physical and/or emotional handicapping conditions.
Attempts to contact Woolard by telephone and e-mail were unsuccessful. A telephone call made to the number listed as his home phone number received a recorded message stating the telephone there had been disconnected or no longer is in service. A telephone message left for Woolard at the number for the Potter’s House was not returned. E-mails sent to his listed e-mail address at the Potter’s House were returned as undeliverable. An e-mail sent to his e-mail account with the city was not responded to by Saturday afternoon.
In an interview with television station WITN, Woolard said he is not delinquent on his utility bill with the city.
A telephone called placed to the telephone number listed on the Potter’s House Web site as the organization’s telephone number resulted in a woman saying that Tonya Woolard, listed on the Web site as the organization’s chief executive officer, no longer works there and that Potter’s House no longer existed.
As of Saturday, Potter’s House is listed as an active nonprofit organization by the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State. It’s registered agent is the Rev. David L. Moore, chief executive officer of Metropolitan Housing and Community Development Corp.
Asked about the Potter’s House current status, Moore said, “I don’t know. I did set up their corporation for them.”
During the brief interview, Moore said he is not involved with the inner workings of the Potter’s House.
“They were supposed to take me off as their representative,” he said.
Told that online documents listed him as the Potter’s House registered agent, he replied, “It’s not a problem, but that’s what (remove Moore as agent) they were supposed to do.”
Moore said he did not know how to contact Tonya Woolard or Rhoda Gorham, listed as two incorporators of the Potter’s House.
Earlier this month, the Washington Daily News filed a formal request for information with the city. That request, delivered to the city clerk and addressed to City Manager James C. Smith, asked for “copies of e-mails and other public records as defined by General Statute 132-1 that discuss utilities provided to the Potter’s House and/or other affiliated organizations. The e-mails in question could have been sent by yourself, the mayor, council members, the Washington Electric Utilities director and other city officials and/or employees to one another.”
The request also asked if the city has “a written or ‘understood’ policy regarding providing utilities services to nonprofit organizations that fall behind in paying for such services?”
In his response to the newspaper’s request, Smith wrote “that North Carolina General Statutes consider public enterprise billing information to be confidential including any communications referencing such records.”
“We have directed departments to compile all communications concerning Potter House. After review of such communications by the City Attorney if any are found not to be subject to confidentiality we will provide them to you,” Smith also wrote.
The letter also notes that each month this year the city has experience from 300 to 700 delinquencies related to utilities bills, with those delinquent customers receiving several notices by mail and automated telephonic messages.
“A delinquency does not necessarily result in suspension or termination of service. Washington Utilities requires deposits from most new customers which can be forfeited in the event of delinquencies in order to avoid turn-offs,” Smith wrote. “Customers are strongly encouraged to set up payment plans, and if necessary to contact the Department of Social Services and local charitable organizations which provide assistance in order to avoid turn-offs.”
Smith’s letter notes the city’s policies concerning collection and handling of delinquent accounts include a cut-off policy, which has been subject to revision, mostly recently extending the grace period from 10 days to 15 days after the due date on the customer’s utilities bill.
“Moreover, the City has from time to time deviated from the strict language of its cut off policy depending upon facts and circumstances of a particular situation when it is determined to be in the best interest of the community to do so,” reads Smith’s letter. “The City has provided courtesy extensions to businesses experiencing short term cash flow deficiencies where there has been a past history of positive financial relationship. We have granted extensions to non-profit groups and even State agencies which have experienced programmatic funding delays, delayed budget approvals, accounting systems breakdowns, and bureaucratic processing issues. The decision to grant an extension for periodic payment plan is based upon individual judgments of financial status, past performance, and impact on community members served by the organization.”
The Washington Daily News continues to investigate the matter.