The tree removal company was hired last summer after a storm blocked roadways in the town.
The town, which had not levied taxes at the time, had just $15,000 in its General Fund and barely enough revenue to meet expenses before the storm.
Now, over a year later, the state says tree service owner Robert Walters may be stuck with a $145,000 bill..
A letter from Sharon Edmundson, director of the fiscal management section at the treasury department, says neither the state nor East Laurinburg are liable to pay Robert's Tree Service.
Mayor Randy Miller disagrees with the state assessment — at least with the part that says the state should not have to pay.
Edmundson had argued that the state is not responsible because the work was on private property.
"We have spoken with officials at the State Division of Emergency Management in the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, as well as officials with Progress Energy," Edmundson said. "Representatives from both of these entities have visited [East Laurinburg] and viewed the area that suffered damages. Each of the representatives concluded that the majority of the work done was carried out on private property and not town property. Therefore, neither agency is liable to pay any portion of the invoice from Robert's Tree Service."
Miller disagrees and says the fallen trees were on the public right-of-way.
Miller said that he was told by a state Department of Transportation official that along the two-lane numbered roads in East Laurinburg, ranging from First to 11th Streets, the town owns a strip that is 48 ft. wide. The concrete and gutters only take up between 32 to 36 feet of the property while the area around it is part of the right of way, which is publicly owned.
On Ninth Street, the right-of-way goes up to the steps leading into residents' houses, according to Miller.
He said that most of the trees grew on the right-of-way and were therefore town property.
Miller said that, as town property, the state's reasoning is flawed.
"The man is entitled to his money," Miller said. "He's done the work."
The East Laurinburg mayor says he will continue to seek state funds to pay Walters, even after his term as mayor expires.
Miller was silent, however, on the ruling that absolved the town from paying.
"We are aware that Robert's Tree Service is demanding payment of the invoice," Edmundson said. "However, based on our conversations with [Miller] and the town's finance officer, it is our understanding that the town did not have the financial means to enter into the transaction. Furthermore, the obligation was not pre-audited as is required by the Local Budget and Fiscal Control Act, nor was it included in the town's annual budget, again as required by the General Statutes. Therefore, we do not believe this is to be a legal liability of the town and the town is instructed to make no further payments."
Miller has also said that, until the state says otherwise, East Laurinburg will not make payment to the tree removal company.
Walters said he will seek legal action if the matter is not resolved.
"My last resort is a lawyer," Walters said. "That is a step you shouldn't have to do. But if it comes to it, we will do what we have to."
Walters also dismissed notions that he would avoid working in the former-mill town.
"If another storm came through here tonight ... I'd be down here," Walters said.