President of embattled NC Rural Center retires
The longtime president of the embattled North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center has announced he will retire, effective immediately.
Billy Ray Hall announced his departure Thursday, after the release of a state audit Wednesday that showed the taxpayer-funded nonprofit agency failed to provide proper oversight of millions in grants while paying Hall too much money. The audit prompted Gov. Pat McCrory to call for the replacement of Hall and Valeria L. Lee, who chairs the center's board.
State Auditor Beth Wood's report said oversight requirements on millions in grants issued by the center were not diligently enforced and that job creation claims could not be verified. The audit also questioned Hall's $221,000 annual salary and another $241,000 in a special account to be paid to him as a cash severance if he leaves, in addition to generous retirement benefits.
The statement issued Thursday by the center to announce Hall's retirement made no mention of the scrutiny now facing the center he has led for 26 years.
"I have devoted my entire career to improving the quality of life for all the people of North Carolina," Hall said, according to the release. "It has been humbling to see the tremendous impact that the N.C. Rural Center has had in communities across the state. But our work is not finished. From Ahoskie to Bakersville, from Alexander County to Duplin County, it is important that this work continue, and that best can be accomplished under new leadership."
The statement made no mention of whether chairwoman Lee will resign or whether Hall will still collect the severance cash criticized in the audit.
Established in 1987 following a legislative study, the Rural Center is supposed to spur economic development in 85 North Carolina counties, with a special focus on helping individuals with low to moderate incomes in non-urban areas. The center received about $17 million in state funds over the last fiscal year.
A state budget proposed by the state Senate would completely eliminate state funding for the center, while a proposal in the House would provide more than $36 million over the next two fiscal years. Lawmakers are currently meeting to sort out the differences between their budget proposals. Senate leader Phil Berger on Wednesday renewed his call for taxpayer money to be cut off.
The center has been under fire following stories published by The News & Observer of Raleigh last month that detailed several cases where grants resulted in no new jobs or far fewer than the center reported back to legislators. The Rural Center has nearly $70 million that has gone unspent because of delayed projects or busted deals, according to the newspaper's review of public records.
The newspaper reported that the center used millions in taxpayer money to help build fast-food restaurants, golf resorts and big-box retailers including Wal-Mart. While Hall claimed the center used state money to create nearly 20,000 jobs in the past five years, the newspaper found more than 950 jobs in the count from projects that haven't yet begun.