DOBSON — An anonymous letter circulating in the area is criticizing a Dobson-based electrical supplier for giving money to Mount Airy for a new fire truck, which a spokesman for the utility says is “misinformed.”
The letter was mailed to residents served by Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corp. (SYEMC), a longtime rural cooperative owned and governed by its local members, who are customers of the co-op.
“This decision was an embarrassment,” states the one-page letter condemning the financial assistance to the city, which contains no information as to its sender, although there is a suggestion that it came from a member.
The letter claims the $360,000 provided to Mount Airy for the fire truck was an interest-free grant that benefited the city “at the expense of SYEMC members (you and me).”
That money instead should have been used for the betterment of the membership, the letter adds in questioning the fact that it aided a municipality not even in the co-op’s service area.
In reality, funds were provided through Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corp. for the truck, which was delivered in December — but not much else in the letter is true, according to Adam Martin, a spokesman for the utility firm.
“The individual … is misinformed as far as the assistance to the city for the fire truck,” Martin said of the sender.
The $360,000 given for the vehicle was not in the form of a “grant,” but a zero-interest loan from the cooperative to Mount Airy which will be repaid.
And the money is not from co-op funds, Martin further reminded, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program. It provides funding to rural counties through local utility organizations such as Surry-Yadkin.
Such assistance mainly is designed for projects that that will create and retain employment, but also can be used for community-development purposes involving non-profit entities and public bodies. The USDA enlists electric co-ops as clearinghouses for such grants for a logical reason.
“Cooperatives are well-connected to the community — they are aware of needs inside those communities,” Martin said.
He explained that the USDA grant came directly to the local co-op and was made available to the city of Mount Airy, which was looking to obtain an expensive vehicle as cheaply as possible.
The money granted to cooperative allowed the establishment of a revolving loan program, to which Mount Airy will be repaying the funds borrowed over time.
“When the money is repaid, it ends up going back out in the community,” Martin said of how the revolving loan fund can be used to support other eligible projects in the area.
“We’re open to helping any local fire department.”
Some confusion, as evidenced by the letter, could be due to the fact that the USDA loan program represents a new concept for Surry County, and also the state.
The situation involving Mount Airy was the local electric cooperative’s first economic-development project funded through the program.
Martin said the effort to provide the loan for the city was initiated in 2016, but before that a volunteer fire department in Wilkes County had sought assistance. It ultimately decided to use a private loan.
Meanwhile, the false claims have provoked concern among Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corp. members unfamiliar with the loan program who have received the letter, including Sam and Denise Chappell of Lowgap.
“The thought of our monies going to Mount Airy city to purchase a fire truck should be a gross misuse of membership money,” Denise Chappell reacted initially after the letter arrived at the couple’s home. It went through the Greensboro postal center and contained no return address.
“I just want to get to the bottom of it,” Mrs. Chappell said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.