04/04/04 — Legislators hear concerns

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Legislators hear concerns

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on April 4, 2004 9:25 AM

Abandoned mobile homes clutter the roadsides. One in four people refuses to pay vehicle property taxes. Escalating Medicaid bills threaten to sink the county budget.

State and federal officials heard about those problems, among others, during a legislative briefing Friday at the Goldsboro Country Club.

The Wayne County Board of Commissioners was the host of the meeting to inform the county's representatives in Raleigh and Washington of their concerns. The N.C. General Assembly opens its 2004 session next month.

The briefing attracted N.C. Sens. Fred Smith and John Kerr; N.C. Reps. Louis Pate and Larry M. Bell; Ann Lichtner, director of intergovernmental relations for Gov. Mike Easley; and Reggie Holley, deputy state director for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

All of the guests promised to work on the county's requests.

The county's top priority remains Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, which contributes around $1 billion a year to the local economy, County Manager Lee Smith said. "If something was to happen to Seymour Johnson, we'd be devastated."

All military bases will be reviewed next year by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly said that he wants to close a large percentage. In March, Rumsfeld reiterated that the military has 24 percent more base capacity than it needs.

The county has done some preliminary projections as to what would happen if Seymour Johnson was to close and the Air Force to relocate its personnel, Smith said. As home values fall, the tax rate would rise, from the current 66 cents per $100 valuation to somewhere within the 92- to 99-cent range within five years or so, Smith said.

But, Smith said, "closure is not even on our radar screen."

Instead, officials are trying to focus on the possibility that Seymour Johnson could expand its mission and take in new personnel as other bases close, he said.

Sen. Dole is well aware of the concerns about eastern North Carolina's bases and will support them as a member of the Armed Forces Committee, Holley said.

Tax dodgers

Wayne County only collects 75 percent of vehicle tax bills because people have learned how to avoid paying them, Smith said. The county has two employees pursuing delinquent taxpayers but it's unable to significantly cut that loss, mainly because people move and cannot be found.

The county is asking the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles to begin collecting property taxes for the counties at the time of the annual license tag renewal. The DMV would surely take a percentage, Smith said, but the state has the resources to collect closer to 100 percent, which would make more money for both the state and its counties.

Abandoned homes

Officials also asked for help with the problem of dilapidated and abandoned mobile homes. Wayne County has an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 trashed mobile homes.

The commissioners are primarily concerned about the ones along highways and major roads because of the possible effect on tourism and economic development, Smith said.

The N.C. House considered a bill last session that would have added an advanced disposal fee to the price of new and used mobile homes bought in the state. That money would have been given to local governments to remove junkers.

Unfunded mandates

The county's share of Medicaid this year will cost $5.8 million and is estimated to be $7.5 million next year. Smith said that is equal to 14 cents on the county tax rate.

Medicaid reimbursements assist many health care providers and offices, he added. Without that money, Wayne Memorial Hospital might not exist.

But the county cannot afford to pay the ever-increasing bill, he said. He asked for whatever assistance possible.

Other concerns

Smith highlighted several other issues.

*As people cut off home phones and go to wireless phones, the county is losing funding for its emergency 911 system, which helps pay for its dispatch center. Smith asked for a review of the state's distribution of the E-911 charge on cellular phones to ensure that counties can still maintain their equipment.

*The county wants state funding to assist in the construction of its new animal shelter, estimated to cost $1 million.

*State archive rules allow the county to microfilm records, but it would be much cheaper and efficient to scan them and store them electronically. If the state would drop the microfilm requirement, counties would save millions in storage space and record management, Smith said.

*Smith asked that the General Assembly consult with counties before proceeding with a reform of its health systems. Local officials are still trying to get their bearings on the mental health system reforms that caused several mental health centers to merge.

'Front liners'

The briefing's format did not allow the legislators much time to respond, but all were supportive.

"I appreciate hearing what you have to say -- y'all are on the front line," state Sen. Kerr said, adding, "I don't know what line we're on."

"Firing line," state Rep. Pate quipped.

Pate added, "You've certainly given us some things we can sink our teeth into."