03/12/07 — County to talk about options for facilities

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County to talk about options for facilities

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on March 12, 2007 1:55 PM

Several legislative issues will be on the agenda for discussion when the Wayne County Board of Commissioners meets in special session Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting, which will be held at 12:15 p.m. in the commissioners' meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse, will focus on a variety of issues ranging from Medicaid relief for counties to suggested changes for how lottery proceeds will be issued.

North Carolina's counties are projected to spend about $488 million for Medicaid services this year, with Wayne County spending about $7.5 million, according to a North Carolina Association of County Commissioners report. North Carolina is the only state that requires county participation in all Medicaid services.

Although a cap was placed on Medicaid costs during the last state legislative session, County Manager Lee Smith said he is still concerned that Medicaid costs will increase in coming years.

About 22 percent of Wayne residents are already eligible for Medicaid. That number is expected to increase as more baby boomers retire, Smith said.

"The biggest problem we've got is Medicaid," commissioner Efton Sager said.

Other issues at the local and state level compound the problem, he added. For example, counties depend on lottery funds for additional school system money. If that amount is cut or the allocation is changed for expenses from construction costs to educational programs, Sager said the counties will continue to have problems footing the bill.

"They know the counties are struggling to build schools and that we need relief," he said.

One avenue of relief for counties could be through a statewide bond referendum for school construction. The commissioners and the Wayne Board of Education discussed the possibility of a local referendum to help pay for a $90 million capital improvement plan, but nothing has been done yet to get that issue on the May or November ballot.

Smith said the state's counties should weigh all options before asking the state to present a bond referendum to the public.

"When you get the state legislature to agree to something, they usually take away from something else," he warned.

Instead of a statewide bond referendum, Wayne could ask the legislature for the chance to levy its own one-cent sales tax, Smith said. A one-cent sales tax could generate about $7.4 million in additional revenue, he added.

If the county chose to use that sales tax increase, Smith said that money could support $80 million in debt service for the next 20 years based on today's numbers.

County Commission Chairman John Bell said the board will discuss possible revenue sources on Wednesday because no commissioner wants to raise property taxes too high, putting a burden on a portion of the county's population. Instead, a sales tax will affect more people, and everyone will contribute, he added.

County Commissioner Jack Best, who has been outspoken in recent months concerning local schools and the education they provide to students, said Friday afternoon that he was looking forward to Wednesday's discussion on a statewide bond referendum or a local sales tax. He added that he hasn't made a personal decision between the two.

The commissioners will also discuss a possible resolution asking the state to make school systems exempt from sales taxes as they were several years ago. Smith said the schools should be exempt from those taxes just like the county government.

Other agenda items include asking the state to extend the sunset on nutrient runoff fees from September to January 2009.

The nitrogen runoff fee, known as the nutrient offset fee program, was established by the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to help the state maintain strict nitrogen limits. The rules limit the amount of stormwater runoff leaving the site of any new development, which would protect rivers and streams from harmful amounts of sediments.

During construction at a new development, sediments, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are washed away and eventually run off into local waterways, such as the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers.

Developers can offset the amount that enters local waterways by paying a fee of $11 per pound per acre, which is used to pay any environmental costs.

Last year, an administrative ruling changed the fee amount from $11 per pound per acre to $57 per pound per acre. The change was limited to the Neuse River basin, which local officials said would completely halt any kind of development in the area.

State legislators agreed and lowered the fee to its original amount. The legislature also created an Environmental Review Commission to study the costs of protecting local waterways, if the fee should change and if the fees need to be expanded to other parts of the state.

The state gave that commission until September to determine those findings, but Smith said he believes that will not be enough time for the commission to complete its work.