01/12/07 — Wayne commissioners' trio attends legislative conference

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Wayne commissioners' trio attends legislative conference

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 12, 2007 1:53 PM

PINEHURST -- John Bell, Atlas Price and J.D. Evans weren't especially vocal at the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners legislative goals conference Thursday, but, they said, they were there making sure Wayne County's interests were represented.

"We're right on the same page as the Association. Believe it or not, most counties have the same problems or similar problems," Wayne County Commission Chairman Bell said. "Just about everything on that (agenda) will have some effect on Wayne County."

Topping the Association's legislative goals list this year are several familiar refrains -- permanent Medicaid relief for counties, more dollars for school construction and the ability for all counties to use the same revenue-generating options.

On all three priority items, Bell, Wayne's voting delegate, raised his hand in favor.

Gaining Medicaid relief has been among the Association's top goals since the mid-1990s and has been the top goal since 2001. Last year, with a nearly $2 billion budget surplus, the General Assembly capped the counties' Medicaid expenses at their 2005 levels, but no such offer is being discussed again this year.

North Carolina is the only state in the Union to require its counties to share in the cost of the federal- and state-managed low-income health insurance program.

Wayne County's burden, Evans said, is about $7 million a year.

For many of the commissioners in attendance Thursday, Medicaid relief is closely tied to their second goal -- more money for school construction.

While the delegates did vote to ask for a statewide bond referendum and for the authority to raise revenues by other means, many also felt that if they could free up the portions of their budgets being used by Medicaid, then they could do much more for their public schools.

"(Medicaid) limits what we can do," Evans said. "Certainly we could use a part of those funds for the schools."

And, of course, more money for school construction is tied closely to the commissioners' third goal -- that of every county being allowed to generate revenues with all the same methods, including local sales taxes, impact taxes and real estate transfer taxes.

The problem, Price explained, is that property taxes simply aren't raising enough money by themselves.

"We've got a lot of immigrant people who are coming into Wayne County putting a lot of pressure on law enforcement, health care and education," he said. "These people are earning money and I'm not opposed to that, but a lot of them aren't paying property taxes.

"They ought to be sharing the cost of those services, and that's my real concern. The property owners are a small percentage of the county population.

"Something needs to be done about it."

Once the 84 voting delegates in attendance reached a consensus on those priority issues, though, there was still a long list ahead of them.

Among the other 25 goals that were discussed Thursday, were items involving: sales tax exemptions for counties, cities, schools and community colleges, the ability to withhold building permits or deed transfers until delinquent taxes are paid, cleaning up abandoned mobile homes, continued funding of the Low Wealth School Fund, funding for school nurses, aid for public libraries, state support for water and sewer infrastructure improvements and local control over burning permits.

Among the 21 that were expected to be voted on today, are: conservation of working lands and farm land preservation, increased flexibility in use of E-911 funds, more gang prevention funds, additional child care dollars, the ability to declare community college campuses smoke-free, better oversight of group and family homes and an increase in alcohol taxes to fund mental health services.

Duplin County voting delegate, Chairman David Fussell, agreed with the purpose of the last goal, but said that as owner of Duplin Winery, he would like to see an exemption made for the state's growing $813 million grape and wine industry.

"Let's not run the grape and wine industry out of North Carolina. Rather our Association of County Commissioners should be encouraging the legislature to spend our money more wisely, not raise taxes -- particularly on an agricultural opportunity," he said.

Ultimately, though, despite lively debates, each of those goals either passed or was expected to pass with little controversy.

There was only one item that split the state's 100 counties -- Land for Tomorrow, a partnership of businesses, conservationists, farmers, environmental groups, health professionals and community groups.

The Association's proposed goal was to support the organization's request of the state legislature for new appropriations or bond funding - up to $1 billion over five years -- for conservation of North Carolina's land, water and historic places.

But with many of the delegates divided on the issue -- often along the lines of wealthy and poor counties -- the proposal was the only one to be rejected Thursday.

Locally, Bell voted for the goal, while Fussell voted against it.

"I'm for preservation, but it needs to be looked at more," Fussell said, asking where that $1 billion was going to come from and wanting more examination of how land being taken off the tax books might hurt low-wealth counties such as Duplin.

To Evans, even though Wayne County backed the proposal, its failure wasn't a particularly serious blow.

"That was the only controversial one we've had and we seem equally divided on it," he said. "This is the Democratic process in motion. You get a chance to get a feel for where the other counties stand and we were divided.

"The good part is, we're not taking a stand at this point, so we're not affecting anything."

But it's that ability to debate and then come to a consensus on most issues, Bell said, that makes the NCACC so important.

"This is a powerful force," he said. "The General Assembly knows that we represent the people that elected them.

"We have the same constituency. They know the things we want, we're speaking directly for the people in our local communities. This is really where the authority is. We deal with 90 percent of the needs of the people at the local level. We are the voice of the people."