By Hannah McClellan, Chatham News + Record Staff
A year of response, recovery and resiliency.
That’s the opening tagline to the 19-page 2021 State of Chatham County Report, presented at last week’s board of commissioners meeting by Commissioner Mike Dasher.
The report — which covers the county government’s fiscal year, from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021 — highlighted Chatham’s response to COVID-19, including campaigns to vaccinate the community against the virus. Dasher also highlighted the county’s response to and recovery from the October 2020 cyberattack that incapacitated many of the county’s business systems for two to three months, along with the county’s yearlong celebration of its 250th anniversary.
“It has been quite a remarkable year in Chatham County, and my fellow commissioners and I are extremely grateful to the staff and their perseverance,” Dasher said. “The staff’s adaptability during these major events is a testament to their resilience and commitment to serving our community.”
The report also includes updates on activities within the Chatham Comprehensive Plan, countywide initiatives such as economic development, and achievements within county departments and programs.
Here’s a closer look at the some of the events included in the report, along with reporting from the News + Record throughout the year:
Oct. 28 ransomware attack
Stolen Chatham County government files posted online following an Oct. 28 ransomware attack contained personal information — including data such as Social Security and bank account numbers — of some local residents, in addition to current and former county employees.
The News + Record learned about the posting of sensitive data files by the criminal enterprise responsible on Feb. 8; county officials later confirmed to the newspaper that sensitive data had been released by the ransomware group known as DoppelPaymer.
This news came after more than three months of county staff working diligently to mitigate the impact of the “cyber incident,” with many staff reportedly working nights and weekends to ensure services to county residences went uninterrupted.
“That’s why I said our ‘Employee of the Year’ was every single, solitary employee we have,” Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne told the News + Record in February. “You can’t pick one. There’s too many good people. And everybody went through a lot of tough things. Each individual, each individual department and each individual employee in those departments just stepped up in the way they needed to, and has been through a lot of adversity with the pandemic and this event. It’s been a big challenge.”
DoppelPaymer’s first data upload was made Nov. 4, a week after Chatham County officials announced the breach; it contained “mostly innocuous” files, LaMontagne, told the News + Record at the time, including files that fall under North Carolina’s public records laws; a second upload in late January contained more sensitive data.
After learning about the leaked information, the county worked to identify and notify every individual whose personal information may have been shared, LaMontagne told commissioners as part of a report he made on the attack at the board’s regular meeting one week after learning about the posting of the sensitive files. The county encouraged people to monitor their accounts for any suspicious activity, and to consider placing a fraud alert and/or security freeze on their credit report.
The stolen data files were posted after Chatham County failed to pay a 50 bitcoin ransom — the cryptocurrency was worth roughly $708,000 on Nov. 4, a week after the attack. Cybersecurity experts routinely warn businesses and entities not to pay ransomware demands, saying it incentivizes cybercrime.
In a February report, LaMontagne confirmed that the county’s network was breached through a “phishing” email in October — leading to the county losing its computers and network, email, telephone and voicemail systems. As a result, the hard drives of nearly all of the county’s desktop and laptop computers — more than 550 of them — had to be wiped clean, stripped down and reimaged.
The county’s State of Chatham report didn’t mention the posting of sensitive files. It did include comprehensive efforts by county MIS staff to rebuild its network, including the reimaging of more than 700 staff devices along with the recovery of data for more than 30 county business systems and applications.
“Along with the extensive mitigation efforts taken by the county during the cyber incident,” the report reads, “Chatham County MIS also evaluated the existing security protocols in an effort to further build upon the security of the county network.”
Such efforts included a training on security awareness and email, using multi-factor authentication, implementing additional network security monitoring and Next Generation Anti-Virus Software (NGAV).
In 2019, Chatham started its efforts to educate the community about the importance of completing the 2020 Census, primarily through the Chatham Complete Count Committee — made up of county, municipal and church organizations, the Hispanic Liaison and business leaders across Chatham.
The 2020 Census was the 24th census in U.S. history, and due to the pandemic, the deadline to respond to the Census was extended to Oct. 16, 2020. At its close, 70.8% of Chatham County households had completed their 2020 Census without a census worker arriving at their door. In comparison, N.C.’s self-response rate was 63.4%.
“County leaders hope that census workers reached the remaining 29.2% of Chatham County households that did not respond to the census on their own,” the report reads.
By August 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released some census data which revealed that Chatham’s population grew over the past 10 years, including growth in the Latino population by one percentage point. The population counts are important, the report says, for determining how much funding Chatham County will be allocated for federal programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Head Start.
Chatham County’s population increased by about 20% from 2010 to 2020, the News + Record previously reported — and much like the majority of the U.S., most of that growth came from Chatham’s minority populations.
Using updated Census Bureau data, plus data from past censuses dating back to 1990, the News + Record compiled five key takeaways about Chatham County’s 2020 demographic trends in September:
- Chatham is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.
- Chatham’s white population isn’t shrinking, but its share of the county’s population is.
- Chatham’s Hispanic population grew by a quarter from 2010 to 2020. Now it’s the county’s largest minority population.
- Chatham’s non-Hispanic Black population has been incrementally decreasing for the past 30 years.
- Chatham’s multiracial population had the highest growth rate between 2010 and 2020.
Because of the pandemic, along with the Census being completed by residents online for the first time, some politicians and advocates have questioned how accurate 2020 Census results are. This concern was not raised in the report, but the topic was discussed at multiple previous board of commissioners meetings.
The 2020 election
Chatham had the highest voter turnout in the state, at 84.26% of registered voters.
“The Chatham County Board of Elections and the elections staff held a successful historic Presidential Election amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report says, “with record voter turnout during a countywide cyber incident, which did not interrupt or compromise the voting process.”
Chatham had a record number of curbside voters in 2020, added two early voting sites and provided Sunday voting for the first time. The county’s Board of Elections hired 120 new election officials — a record number — and held 40 in-person election official training sessions, in addition to providing personal protective equipment at polling places and carrying out multiple other COVID-mitigation protocols.
After traditionally straddling party lines, Chatham voted for nearly all Democratic candidates in every major political contest in the 2020 election — with the exception of Rep. Ted Budd (U.S. House, Dist. 13 incumbent), who led throughout the reporting of results.
Breaking from the state at large, Chatham’s voters favored Joe Biden for president instead of Donald Trump, and the trend continued down the ballot. Gov. Roy Cooper was the county’s top vote-getter, and incumbent state legislators Robert Reives II and Valerie Foushee, also Democrats, maintained their seats with comfortable margins.
The county’s closest race was for the Dist. 5 county commissioner seat. Democratic Commissioner Franklin Gomez Flores narrowly beat then-Republican-incumbent Andy Wilkie, who was appointed to the seat in May 2019. Gomez Flores, who was elected to a two-year term in 2020, is seeking a full four-year term in 2022. He is the board’s first Latino commissioner, and last week, was elected as the board’s 2022 vice-chairperson.
Chatham County retains a large agricultural base with “a mixture of industrial, tourism, and service businesses helping support the county’s economy,” the report reads. The county is impacted by economic booms in surrounding areas like Cary, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, particularly in its northeastern areas.
“A large number of Chatham County residents commute outside the county for employment, with the urban areas being the top destinations for jobs,” the report says. “The regional prosperity has enabled Chatham County to rank fifth among the state’s 100 counties in median household income. The county experienced a 20% growth rate from 2010-2020 according to U.S. Census data and is among the 10 fastest growing counties in the state.”
The report highlights the following industry developments:
- Charter Furniture expanded its operations into a new facility in Siler City, bringing 101 jobs into Chatham with a $1.5 million investment in its new facility (in addition to the purchase of the existing building). The new facility is 260,000 square feet and located off of Industrial Park Road.
- PolarOnyx, a laser 3D manufacturing company, relocated from California into the former Performance Bicycle building off 15-501 near Chapel Hill, generating additional jobs and investments in the county.
- The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is working to find companies to do business at Chatham’s megastites.
Michael Smith joined Chatham County as president of the Economic Development Corporation in January, and told the News + Record in May his goal from the jump was to tie the long-term megasite projects with Chatham Park.
Chatham has two megasites: The Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site, a 1,802-acre industrial megasite in western Chatham County; and Triangle Innovation Point (TIP), previously the Moncure Megasite, a 2,150-acre life science and advanced manufacturing park in Moncure. Both have been under development for several years, and their infrastructures are almost complete, Smith said.
“Those have been 10-year projects or more, maybe a little longer,” he said in May, “and I’m fortunate now to be here in 2021 at the end of those 10-year phases and moving into a phase where I think we’re really poised for truly exciting things to happen.”
Chatham County continues to see growth in single family homes — 25% increase FY20 to FY21, the report says — and a sustained increase in the number of multi-family units.
Amid that housing boom, the report says “Affordable Housing continues to be a top priority in Chatham County.”
Affordable Housing is typically defined as housing that does not cost, through rent or mortgage payments, more than 30% of a person’s gross annual income, including utilities and insurance.
“Everyone deserves affordable housing,” the report says, “which is why the county continues to invest in the creation and preservation of safe and affordable options for all residents.”
In August, Wallick Communities Inc. was selected for tax credits to build 72 units in Siler City behind UNC Hospital in Chatham Business Park. This income-restricted development, which is expected to come online in 2023, is receiving $85,000 from the Housing Trust Fund (2020-2021 cycle) and will be built on formerly county-owned land.
The Chatham County Housing Trust Fund (HTF) was created in 2018. Since then, the HTF has provided nearly $600,000 in grants and low-interest loans to projects that create and preserve affordable housing units across Chatham. The HTF helped create 162 new affordable housing units, 90 of which are now open and online. The remaining units are expected to open in 2023, the report says.
In 2021, the Emergency Housing Fund (EHF) served over 40 households, at the time the report was written, “by working with community partners, the Department of Social Services and Court programs to assist with emergency hotel stays, utility assistance, as well as eviction and foreclosure prevention.”
On Nov. 22, the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the last of Chatham Park’s “additional elements” components — requiring 7.5%, or 1,650, of the planned community’s 22,000 market-rate housing units — to be affordable housing.
Only Commissioner John Bonitz dissented, saying he didn’t feel comfortable voting on it without further discussion on concerns from the public, as well as changes suggested by board members regarding not requiring parks or recreational space among affordable units.
“This is highly inappropriate policy making to be editing an important document like this that has massive implications for decades to come,” Bonitz said at the time. “I am astonished that the board went along with it again — approving an element based on verbal edits not yet put in writing, I’m just astonished. I’m kind of horrified, really.”
Affordable housing was the final element of 12 approved for the Chatham Park development after the initial approval, back in 2015, of Chatham Park’s master plan.
In the original proposal in 2016, Chatham Park offered to make 1% of its residential developments affordable housing units; November’s approved plan had Chatham Park agreeing to 7.5% of residential properties being affordable homes. Of those, the News + Record previously reported, 90% of the units will be multi-family homes, such as duplexes, apartments and more, while the other 10% will be allocated for single-family homes.
Bonitz recognized the gains from 2016, but stressed that many experts said the town needed 15% of the Chatham Park developments to be affordable housing units.
COVID-19 and public health
“From mass-vaccination clinics and visits to those who are homebound to vaccination events at churches, schools, long term care facilities, workplaces, and the detention center,” the report reads, “Chatham County Public Health Department staff and volunteers worked hard to make the vaccine available across Chatham County, including addressing disparities among marginalized communities.”
The CCPHD administered more than 7,000 doses of the COVID vaccine from Jan. 1 to June 30, the report says. In Chatham, 57% of people received at least one dose of the vaccine and 54% are fully vaccinated, according to state COVID-19 data as of Tuesday.
“I think back to the first months of the vaccine being available and how hectic that was, and I’m thankful for how far we’ve come,” CCPHD Director Mike Zelek previously told the News + Record. “We will never know exactly how many lives were saved because of these vaccines, but all that challenging work was worth it because of each of those lives. Chatham residents are alive today because of COVID-19 vaccines.”
The department has emphasized equity in its vaccine outreach efforts throughout the pandemic — leaning heavily on community partnerships with local churches and organizations such as the Hispanic Liaison.
Chatham’s Hispanic community was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, before vaccines were available. Though Chatham’s population is about 13% Hispanic, 32% of its total confirmed coronavirus cases were among Hispanic residents earlier this fall, according to the state’s COVID-19 data.
Now, according to data compiled by CCPHD data scientist Maia Fulton-Black, 51% of the county’s eligible Hispanic population — 5 years and older — is at least partially vaccinated, while 47% are fully vaccinated, as of Dec. 1.
“We are glad to see these disparities narrow over time,” Zelek told the News + Record. “To me, it is a testament to the hard work of community organizations like Hispanic Liaison and our staff who carried our critical efforts to make the vaccine accessible and share reliable information.”
You can read the full report here.
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