04/18/06 — Medicaid, lottery among concerns for local leaders

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Medicaid, lottery among concerns for local leaders

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on April 18, 2006 1:51 PM

Eastern North Carolina legislators met with Wayne County and Goldsboro officials Monday morning to discuss everything from state lottery money and new rules for stormwater runoff to how to pay for health care.

The meeting is an annual gathering during which local leaders let state legislators know what is on their minds in advance of the official opening of the legislative session.

Among the top concerns discussed at Wilber's Barbecue were the money that the area can expect from the new state lottery as well as additional programs that will assist the region.

But tops on the agenda for county and city officials as well as legislators was Medicaid relief. The increasing costs of keeping the program going are taking their toll on local budgets, officials said.

"The fact is, this adds a penny to the tax rate each year for Medicaid and that pulls away from other services," Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said. "A lot of jobs are created by Medicaid money and that does good things, but there has to be a limit."

In Wayne County, paying for Medicaid costs the county about $7.2 million or more than 9 percent of the county's budget. Since the property tax base is increasing at a much slower pace than Medicaid costs, the issue forces counties throughout the state to either cut services or raise taxes, said David Thompson of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

"It's a crime that we live in the richest country in the history of the world, and we're not able to reach out and help those that need it," Sen. John Kerr said.

In the state Senate, Thompson said, legislators have considered a one cent increase in the sales tax, which would provide about $1 billion to help offset the cost to counties.

But that would not address the root of the problem, especially if costs keep rising, he added.

"Half of that would go to the House or the state and half would go to the counties to offset the cost, but it would be an asset that turns into a liability. We want to look at a long-term offset. We are getting different debates and discussions, and we hope that will happen," Thompson said.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said until a better solution is found, counties are forced to offset the costs because of federal and state mandates, even though there are other problems requiring county funds.

"We have school problems. I think we need to figure something out and let's get rid of this albatross any way we can," Anderson said.

Another problem for Wayne County is a new restriction on stormwater runoff during development projects that has raised the price of nitrogen buydowns from $11 per pound per acre to $57 per pound per acre.

Goldsboro City Engineer Terry Gallimore said the large increase in cost could make many businesses reconsider locating in Wayne County.

"An average-sized development can be seven times or more in increased costs," he said.

Wayne County Commis-sioner Jack Best said the increased cost is a detriment to economic development in the region because the new rules are limited to the Neuse River and Tar-Pamilco basins.

The new restrictions were mandated by an administrative ruling instead of through the state House or Senate, officials said. Although nothing can be done until the upcoming session and counties affected by the restrictions will be forced to collect the fees, Kerr said it might be possible to file a bill to stop the restriction and then work to repeal it later.

"If it's scientifically proven that an increase is good, then let's see the evidence, but they haven't shown it," Goldsboro City Manager Joe Huffman said.

Wayne County officials said they would also like better clarification as to how the state's lottery proceeds are going to help education. The General Assembly estimates $425 million will be produced by the education lottery in the 2006-07 fiscal year.

Of that amount, 5 percent of the net proceeds would go to the Education Lottery Reserve Fund and be used when the lottery proceeds fall short of the estimated target. Fifty percent of the remaining money will be used for the reduction of classroom sizes in elementary grades to 18 students per teacher. Also set to benefit would be pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk 4-year-olds.

Another 40 percent will be used for school construction, with the remaining 10 percent tapped for college scholarships for students who qualify for the federal Pell Grant. Although this money will be useful, Wayne County Commissioner Efton Sager said he worries that it might not be enough, and that the county will need to present a bond referendum to the public to pay for the county's school construction needs.

Rep. Larry Bell agreed that what the state is asking for could cost the counties more.

"We are told we have to decrease the class sizes, but then we have to put up the money for more classrooms," he said.

Officials from two county programs also attended the breakfast to ask for more assistance to help people throughout the community. By the end of March, the waiting list for the county's day care exceeded 680 children, said Vicki Jackson of the Wayne County Department of Social Services.

The department served an average of 1,471 children last year at an average cost of $308 per month per child, Mrs. Jackson said. This year, the program has been allocated about $800,000 less, which means the department could have to deny services to more than 200 children.

Smith said the parents of these children are the employees of local industries and companies. If the children do not have day care services, the parents will not continue to work for those companies, he said.

"It's all about economic development and we hope you look at it as a top priority. Someone has to pick up the cost. It helps employers, and it gives care to the children," Smith said.

The Wayne County Library system has also been helping children for generations, library director Jane Rustin said. State funding for the library has decreased over the past few years, she said. In the past year, the library asked for $4.7 million and only received $1 million, she said.

"The money is about the folks. We serve the community, and we help people with all kinds of services. We let people use the Internet. We help them find jobs. We help them fill out resumes. We help with education for children," Mrs. Rustin said.

The legislative session is scheduled to begin May 9.