Chatham commissioners discuss cyber incident, future building projects in regular meeting


PITTSBORO — During a regular session Monday night, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners discussed future building projects as well as last week’s cyber attack on Chatham County’s communications infrastructure and network.

Members of the public have been asked to attend Chatham County Commissioners meetings virtually since late April, but the meeting was held completely in person Monday after county officials discovered a cyber attack on the county’s electronic systems Oct. 28. The attack affected Chatham County’s phone system, network and email, leading officials to choose a limited-attendance, in-person meeting.

At the session, held inside the historic Chatham County Courthouse, the board heard a preliminary presentation on Chatham’s Capital Improvements Program (CIP), which will help officials plan public projects and budgetary allocations for a seven-year period starting in 2022.

A first look at the 2022-2028 CIP

Taking a big-picture perspective on the county’s infrastructure and financial standing, Assistant County Manager Bryan Thompson presented a first look at Chatham County’s recommended CIP for fiscal years 2022-2028. According to a county press statement, “the seven-year CIP is updated every year as a process to plan for and fund major capital needs costing more than $100,000.”

“The decisions made during the CIP will directly impact, to a large degree, part of the outcomes in the operating budget ...” Thompson told the board. “For example, when a building project comes online, there will be an increase in the operating cost within the operating budget.”

The initial CIP presentation was purposely brief and somewhat general, anticipating future board and community input. The board will hear public comments regarding the plan during its regular session Nov. 16 at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center.

The proposed CIP will be available on the county website at at such time that county data is available again, and the final CIP is expected to be adopted at the board’s regular meeting Dec. 21.

The 12-slide CIP presentation includes a recommendation that the county be “cautious with debt-funded projects until (the) impact of significant future projects and of future growth (e.g. Chatham Park) is known.”

The CIP also included an approximate $3.857 million budget increase in the plan to build a new Chatham County Schools Central Services building. An Emergency Operations Center expansion project is expected to cost an additional $3.873 million. New projects include $200,000 toward athletic field lighting in Northeast District Park and a $7.943 million allocation that would encompass some smaller maintenance and replacement projects county-wide.

Rounding out the list of new projects is a $4 million expenditure to finish “final cell blocks” in the Chatham County Detention Center.

The latter project is slated for 2028, and Thompson mentioned the possibility of non-prison alternatives.

“What we do know is that there might be some programming that could help mitigate some of the growth of the jail population,” he said. “But we also know that Chatham County is also growing, and that growth may also result in that effect of needing more space.”

Thompson also reported that Chatham received an AAA bond rating this summer from the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, meaning “the obligor’s capacity to meet its financial commitments on the obligation is extremely strong,” according to S&P definitions.

As the county looks toward projects in the CIP that necessitate borrowing funds, the positive rating bodes well for future interest rates. According to Thompson, Standard and Poor’s “specifically highlighted very strong management, budgetary flexibility and liquidity, as well as strong economic and budgetary performance ... ” The county has also received an Aa1 bond credit rating from Moody’s.

Cyber attack update

County manager Dan LaMontagne reported that the cyber attack on Chatham County last week “hit us like a ton of bricks.”

“The problem is really, really bad,” LaMontagne said, “But we are starting to see little glimmers that it’s not as bad as it could be. We’ll just say that this is an ongoing investigation as far as what has happened and what the impacts are to the county. We are working to restore workstations; to get phones to our county departments ... we will not have phones to every staff person, and we will not have phones to every department immediately. We are trying to get the critical facilities up first.”

LaMontagne said his team is “working with federal, state and local agencies on this recovery and forensics.”

“It has impacted our services to the public,” he said about the attack. “We are very apologetic on that. We are prioritizing now and trying to get technology and equipment onsite. We don’t have internet in the offices.”

While Chatham officials are still able to post updates to the county’s website, Chatham County employees are using mobile hotspots to conduct business.

“We are really taxing the Verizon system now between wireless hotspots,” LaMontagne said. “We have to have clean laptops. All of our laptops are not usable until we wipe them and rebuild them.”

Chatham’s Department of Social Services and Sheriff’s Office are top priorities as the county staff works to restore services. Chatham’s election and polling infrastructure is connected to a state-level network and not the county’s network, LaMontagne said, so it remained secure even when county-level functions were affected.

Still, he said that laptops used by poll workers have been replaced out of “an abundance of caution.”

“At no time whatsoever was election data ever compromised,” LaMontagne said. “That was looked at immediately. That and the ability to take 911 calls were our first two things we looked at ... I want to assure everyone that that absolutely was not impacted whatsoever.”

“I can’t imagine being on the other end where you guys are,” board Chairperson Karen Howard said of county staff. “So I thank you all for responding so quickly and for doing whatever needs to be done to get us back where we need to be.”

The regular section of the meeting, which lasted just under an hour, was followed by a closed session during which the board met to discuss, according to the agenda and Howard, “the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee.”