Dorenda Gatling, left, town clerk in tiny Roper, N.C., shops at Oliver's… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)
REPORTING FROM ROPER, N.C. — Every time Bishop Robert Mallory walks into Town Hall to pay his overdue water bill and get his water turned back on, Town Clerk Dorenda Gatling asks, "House or church?"
She lives just up the street from Mallory's house and across the street from his church. But that doesn't keep Gatling from cutting off town water to either one when he can't afford to pay the bills.
"Ask me how that feels — a woman of faith cutting off water to the church," Gatling says, putting her head in her hands inside the cramped town clerk's office at the one-story Roper Town Hall.
Several times a month, Gatling is forced to cut off water to a friend or neighbor. In Roper, population 617, she knows just about every one of them personally, and she feels a pang of guilt and regret each time.
Like thousands of small towns across the country, Roper — in the northeast corner of the state — is suffering mightily through America's worst economic period since the Great Depression. Life here is a grind even in the best of times, but it's nearly unbearable now.
A series of layoffs at a nearby lumber mill left many unemployed, and a highway that once brought thousands of gas- and food-buying motorists through town en route to the Outer Banks was replaced by a bypass.
Many residents are elderly, but those who do hold steady jobs work in hospitals, nursing homes or schools in nearby towns. Others find seasonal jobs in farm work, construction or landscaping.
The town's poverty rate is 27%, nearly double the 15.1% national rate, itself the highest in two decades. The median income here is a paltry $20,600, or $2,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
Gatling, 50, has felt the sting of poverty herself. She was laid off two years ago as a computer specialist when the town was forced to sell off a computer center it had built for schoolchildren. Suddenly she was an unemployed single mother of two. She lost her house to foreclosure.
But she also knows Roper is desperate for the revenue its water system provides. The utility brings in $128,084 a year (Gatling is nothing if not precise) in a town with an annual budget of $360,311.
"We have to aggressively collect," she says. "And that's hard. It's painful. People are robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Some of those she cuts off are sympathetic.
"Bless her. Dorenda is a nice lady, but she's got a job to do," Mallory says of the woman who's cut off water to his church and home four or five times the last year. "She worked with me as far as she could. When it was time to do what she had to do, she had already gone way beyond that."
Mallory lost his announcer's job last fall at a gospel radio station. He survives off a portion of tithes from his parishioners at Greater Victory Temple. But many of them have been laid off or suffered other calamities, and the collection plate gets lighter every Sunday.
Under such circumstances, people can snap. All four tires on Gatling's car were sliced recently. The same week, somebody smashed the car windshield of Estelle Sanders, Roper's 70-year-old mayor, known to everyone here as Bunny.
"Some of them, they treat me like the tax collector," Gatling says. "It distresses me. I catch a lot of flak. I have to humble myself because I get a good cussin' out now and again. In a little town, it's face to face. It's real."
When Gatling orders a cutoff, she summons Theodore Chesson, a town maintenance man for the last 32 years. "Oh, they get all up on me about it — people are crazy about water in this town," Chesson says of the delinquents, many of them lifelong friends.
Some haul water buckets from a neighbor's house after they're cut off, he says, or run a hose from next door. Most delinquents pay up only after their homes are "wrapped," or sealed with yellow police tape to prevent them from illegally turning the water back on, leaving them not only waterless but homeless.
Chesson is 61, with a fluffy white beard and a work shirt that has "Theodore" stitched across his breast. He keeps a toothpick lodged in his mouth, which — combined with his thick Tar Heel brogue — makes him nearly impossible to understand. Bunny Sanders often serves as his interpreter.
Chesson appears to say that an elderly woman recently pulled a gun on him when he arrived to cut off her water. The mayor listens closely and confirms this.
"The lady told me, 'You ain't cutting my water off,' " Chesson says. "She said, 'I'm gonna shoot you in the thick part of your butt.' "
He pauses and lets his listener absorb the implications. "I ain't fighting no woman," he says finally.
Roper's only police officer, retired Marine Johnny Wiggins, was summoned to defuse the confrontation. Wiggins is one of four paid town employees, along with Gatling, Chesson and another maintenance man, Lloyd Purvis. The mayor works for free. Their salaries are a combined $119,000, or an average of just under $30,000 each.