Death, audits, and rumors in Taylorsville: An investigation in a small town

A recent report from the N.C. State Auditor faulted the Town of Taylorsville for a contract the town had with a septic company.
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 9:07 AM EST
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TAYLORSVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) - A recent report from the N.C. State Auditor faulted the Town of Taylorsville, in rural Alexander County, for a years-long contract the town had with a septic company.

It was the culmination of a long-running investigation that led to new political divisions, wild rumors and even death.

Months ago, a whistleblower approached the North Carolina State Auditor alleging that two town employees were getting paid twice: for work done on town hours that overlapped with services performed for the town through their septic company.

The final audit investigative report didn’t find evidence of double-dipping. However, it did find that the town had violated its procurement policy in using a company where town employees had a financial interest, as well as not having policies in place to ensure people weren’t being paid twice for the same service. Over the last 17 years, the audit found, the town paid more than $700,000 to Miller’s Septic for wastewater plant services.

The report held one person responsible for the policy violation: former longtime town manager, David Odom.

Odom, however, had died by suicide in April. In the wake of his death, rumors spread through town.

“There was a lot of slanderous talk about, ‘Well obviously it has to be that David was involved in embezzling money,” longtime friend and attorney Joel Harbinson explained. Holding Odom responsible instead of the town council, that Harbinson believes knew about and approved of the arrangement, was a disservice to his memory and service to the town, he said.

The audit found no evidence of embezzlement or fraud, and found there wasn’t any evidence to prove or disprove that employees had been double-paid.

Now, Harbinson wants everyone to know one thing about Odom:

“He loved this town. He would not have done anything to have profited in that arrangement, and the audit report showed he didn’t do anything to profit from that.”

Odom and Harbinson were elected at the same time as town commissioners back in 1998, where they first met and become fast friends.

In 2003, Odom was hired as town manager, a position he held until he died in April. He was struggling with his physical and mental health at the time, Harbinson said, and the news came as a devastating shock.

“David was just as honest, good and decent and genuine of a person as you could find,” Harbinson reflected. “Plus, he could talk a pig into eating a ham sandwich, he was that convincing.”

Harbinson is representing the two town employees who own Miller Septic, a company that since 1996 has been hired by the town to service the town’s wastewater system when needed.

The employees were hired in 2006, and Harbinson believes it was with this arrangement in mind that has now come under fire. Harbinson defends it: the company has been the only local company for years in or near Taylorsville that had the equipment needed for emergency services for the wastewater plant. Not using them would have cost the town far more money, he believes, in bringing in companies from outside the county.

More than that, however, Harbinson said the audit pointed fingers at Odom but not at the town council, which he says was responsible for ratifying and approving the arrangement year after year over the last seventeen years.

“For 17 years, every town council member was aware of this situation,” Harbinson said. “If they weren’t, they were incompetent for not knowing what was going on. Not only did they approve that procurement policy that the audit says they violated, but they ratified it each year.”

Not everyone accepts that the audit has uncovered all wrongdoing in the town, however.

Eric Bumgarner ran for town council and won this fall, campaigning on a platform of bringing more transparency to town government.

He speculated—without detail or evidence— there’s much more that the audit didn’t uncover.

“It’s been going on for awhile. In my opinion, it’s probably the tip of the iceberg,” Bumgarner said.

He’s lived in Taylorsville for 22 years and believes that the audit played a factor in other candidates running for town government. Two incumbents were reelected, alongside Bumgarner and David Odom’s wife, Tamara Odom.

Taylorsville mayor George Holleman did not respond to a request for comment on why the new town manager was weighing the employment of the two town employees in question when the town council had been at least partially responsible for the arrangement.

In statements to the Hickory Record last week, he referred back to a statement the council had made at the time the audit results were published.

“We feel with a high degree of confidence that we now have in place with new management, along with the planned addition of a Finance Director, the capabilities to segregate positions and duties and ensure that correct management of fiscal policy and all Town policies are followed accordingly,” the statement read.

The statement added that they would be implementing new policies to ensure the situation didn’t happen again. The town also recently purchased equipment to service the wastewater plant themselves instead of relying on Miller Septic’s equipment.