04/14/08 — County keeps eye on 2008 legislative agenda

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County keeps eye on 2008 legislative agenda

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 14, 2008 1:46 PM

Wayne County officials are worried that even with the shortened N.C. General Assembly this year, decisions made in Raleigh this term could cost taxpayers money.

With the short session scheduled to begin May 13, Gov. Mike Easley has already proposed re-reforming the state mental health system as well as addressing water usage across the state. But legislative study committees also are looking at those issues, as well as others such as involuntary annexation, transportation, education and the criminal justice system.

Most of the county's concerns, however, are financial in nature, starting with a proposal floating through the legislative halls that would give counties the responsibility of maintaining secondary state roads.

"That would absolutely devastate our budget," County Manager Lee Smith said.

"That would be a bigger than what Medicaid (the federal health insurance program that has long been a drain on county budgets) ever thought of being," Commissioner Atlas Price said.

If approved, Wayne County would be looking at 861 miles of paved roads and 23 miles of unpaved roads being placed under its care, at a cost of more than $6.4 million a year for maintenance and enhancements -- an amount requiring a tax increase of slightly more than 10 cents per $100 value.

However, Price pointed out, the legislature also is discussing changes to property tax collections, specifically in terms of exemptions and lowered use rates, primarily for senior citizens and land owners under conservation easements.

"That's a lot of property and a lot of revenue," Price said. "I'm not sure if local governments can afford it."

State lawmakers also are looking at lowering the number of years counties can wait between revaluations -- a change that Smith said could end up costing more than it provides in increased revenues.

"The legislature is going after local governments and their revenue streams. And I quite frankly don't believe they need to go there," Smith said, adding that the problem is that nobody in Raleigh is doing any sort of cost-benefit or economic impact analysis on these proposals.

The bottom line, Commissioner John Bell said, is that while county officials don't expect a gift like last summer when the legislature began taking Medicaid costs away from the counties, they also don't want to get blind-sided by a new financial burden.

"I just hope they don't take anything away from us," he said. "As long as we can maintain where we're at, we'll be in pretty good shape."

Fortunately, Price added, because of the election year, it probably will be a quick session with action likely only on mental health and possibly water, depending on the drought situation later this spring.

He is not expecting much action on the more controversial bills, like the transportation proposal.

"You know they want to get in and get out and get on the campaign trail," he said. "They're probably going to cut a lot of things short and wait until (the long session in) 2009."

In the meantime, the commissioners plan to make their feelings well known to Wayne County's state representatives and senators.

"We plan to stay in touch with them and to let them know our opinions from time to time. You've got to keep an eye on Raleigh," Price said.