02/27/05 — Local officials talk, legislators listen

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Local officials talk, legislators listen

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on February 27, 2005 2:06 AM

Concerns about the use of Homeland Security funds, school programs and relief from Medicaid spending were some of the topics county officials talked about Friday with legislative leaders.

Attending the meeting were: Reggie Holley and Janet Bradberry, assistants to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole; Lisa Nolan with the Gov. Mike Easley's office; Jonathan Hill, an assistant for state Sen. Fred Smith; and state House Reps. Larry Bell, Louis Pate and Stephen LaRoque.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said that the state's Department of Crime Control and Public Safety had issued some directives on the spending of Homeland Security funds that were in conflict with the county's needs. Guidelines for the federal grant money encourages states to use the money to put together programs that enhance communication between different law enforcement agencies.

State officials want all counties to buy the Viper communication system. Counties would pay a portion of the cost.

Smith says that another VHF trunking system would better serve Wayne County's communication needs and would cost half as much as the Viper system.

Smith said he talked to law enforcement agencies in the county, as well as the Emergency Management Service and the fire departments about the VHF system. He said that they all agreed the VHF system would best serve the county's needs.

Dr. Steven Taylor, superintendent for Wayne County Schools, encouraged the lawmakers to support a statewide bond referendum to meet school construction needs.

Taylor also asked that the capital school building fund remain intact because it helped the school system's money go further. He also asked for help with utilities.

He also said that there had been $1 million in cuts in discretionary funds for the schools over the past two years.

"We appreciate that the state gave us flexibility where to cut," Taylor said, "But we had to cut positions such as art and music, and we haven't been able to restore them."

He also said the county was eligible to receive full funding in the low-wealth category, but only received $3.8 million of the almost $5 million available.

Taylor said that a state program had enabled the county to reduce class size for second- and third-grade children, but the school system didn't get funding for teacher's assistants.

Other concerns Taylor mentioned was getting full-funding for exceptional children, the need for more school nurses and social workers, reducing the wait time for rehiring teacher retirees from six to two months, and a need for expanding the More at Four program. The pre-kindergarten program is designed to prepare at-risk four-year-olds in North Carolina for school.

"That program is important and helps prepare children for school," he said. "It levels the playing field." But, he said, there's no money in the program for facilities.

Taylor also asked for some changes in the No Child Left Behind program.

"The bulk of it is a good program, and we've made great strides," he said. "But if you have one strike, you're out."

County officials asked that legislators push for laws that would phase out counties' participation in Medicaid, as well as cap this year's expected cost. Wayne County paid $6.7 million this year, or eight percent of its budget, for the treatment of people who are eligible for Medicaid -- 22 percent of the county's population.

County officials also asked the legislators to support legislation for the following:

*Replacing the current registered motor vehicle property tax collection process with one that requires the simultaneous payment of vehicle property taxes with purchase of the license plate/renewal.

*A requirement that the Division of Motor Vehicles to provide the Social Security numbers of motor vehicle owners who owe delinquent motor vehicle taxes to county tax collectors.

*Exemption of counties, cities, school boards and community colleges from state and local sales taxes on purchases within the state.