10/29/06 — Counties tell state what they want on legislative agenda

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Counties tell state what they want on legislative agenda

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 29, 2006 2:00 AM

The start of the North Carolina General Assembly's 2007 long session is still three months away, but lobbying efforts by the state's 100 counties have already begun.

Working through the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, Duplin County and others have been busy submitting their lists of needs, requests and goals as the group puts together its bi-annual comprehensive legislative agenda.

Topping the list, as it does every year, is Medicaid.

"Our agenda hasn't changed much in the last couple of years," Duplin County Commissioner L.S. Guy said. "We desperately need Medicaid relief."

Currently 7.7 percent of Duplin's county budget goes to pay for Medicaid -- $3.5 million of the total $45.5 million, or 12 cents of every 80.5 paid per $100 value. Statewide, North Carolina's counties are saddled with about $500 million in Medicaid costs this year.

And despite the legislature capping this year's county expenses at last year's levels, Medicaid relief is the area in which the association has had the least success.

"(Our legislators) are pretty responsive. We have fared pretty well except for Medicaid," Duplin Commissioner David Fussell said. "We'd like to see the state take over the payments, and I'm confident we'll get there, but while we're waiting, we're spending tax dollars on it that could be directed elsewhere."

In large part because those tax dollars are being consumed by Medicaid, Jim Blackburn, general counsel for the association, said financial issues also are likely to round out the rest of the top of this year's agenda.

Several counties, including Duplin, are looking to ask the legislature to allow them to levy impact fees and deed transfer fees, as well as a one-half cent sales tax.

Many of these funds would be directed toward education.

For example, Fussell explained that an impact fee could charge a family with children coming into the county an additional fee to build a home or hook onto water and sewer to help offset the cost of the increase in school attendance.

"We may not use (these things), but other counties have them," he said. "We would like to be able to make the same decisions on taxes and fees as other counties."

Currently only counties with special permission from the legislature can levy such fees and taxes.

The purpose, Fussell explained, would be to help reduce the county's property tax rate, which is currently 80.5 cents per $100 value.

"It's a better way of raising money than property taxes," he said. "We actually need to reduce the property tax burden on our citizens.

"Our only way of taxation now is property tax and only one-half of all county residents pay property tax. A large percentage of Duplin County doesn't pay property tax, and we feel it's not a fair tax."

The ability to charge such fees, Guy continued, also would help offset the burden that illegal immigration places on the local governments.

Counties are also seeking state help with infrastructure-related issues, such as water and sewer installations and school construction -- all county responsibilities, but things the state has historically given assistance to, Blackburn said.

And with the creation of this year's agenda under way, Blackburn is confident the counties will be able to get at least some of these issues addressed, though perhaps not all immediately.

"You like to believe in the long term we are very successful. You have to look at it in the long term," he said. "We'll end up with a package that includes the three major goals and then 40 or 50 lesser things, but those are important to somebody. It's a one county, one vote thing and it's a system that has worked very well for us."