10/03/08 — Duplin commissioners to appeal court ruling

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Duplin commissioners to appeal court ruling

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 3, 2008 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County commissioners Tuesday night voted 5-1 to appeal a jury's $4.7 million judgment against them in the Board of Education's funding lawsuit against the county.

Commissioner Cary Turner made the motion to appeal. It was seconded by Commissioner David Fussell. Zettie Williams voted against the motion.

Commissioners and the school board have up to 10 days following the judge's order in the case to file the appeal. However, as of today, the judge's order had not been filed in the Duplin County Clerk of Court's office.

County Manager Mike Aldridge said commissioners called the special Tuesday night meeting even though the judge's order had not been filed. Commissioners, he said, did not want to wait and add the issue to an already heavy agenda for next Monday's meeting.

The primary reason for the appeal is to gain time to see how a similar appeal involving commissioners and school board in Beaufort County will be resolved.

Duplin County attorney Neil Yarborough of Fayetteville also is representing Beaufort County.

Aldridge said both cases involve the same constitutional issues.

He said that the state's constitution charges the state with providing a uniform system of education.

However, allowing a non-legislative body, in this case a jury, to make such a decision appears to be at odds with the constitution, he said.

Also, he said, the $4.7 million would be disbursed in such a way that the county could end up paying for school expenses, such as teachers and supplements, that are not the county's responsibility.

There are questions as well as to how court rulings impact a county's tax rate, he said.

The county could be forced to increase taxes by 16 cents to pay the $4.7 million. That would increase the tax rate to 95 cents per $100 of value.

During last month's trial the jury declined to grant the school board's request for $63 million for capital outlay funds.

Aldridge noted that the state caps local property taxes at $1.50. Additional demands for school funding could impact the tax rate, he said.

"Does that judgment grant authority to override the state (cap)?" he said.

Also clouding the issue, he said, is the property revaluation that gets under way next month.

Property tax bills have been sent. Supplemental bills would have to be sent to collect any additional taxes required by the lawsuit. He said commissioners did not want to have both sets of bills out at the same time.

That could be confusing to resolve should Beaufort County prevail in its appeal -- a decision that could impact Duplin.

The two elected bodies ended up in court last month after two years of budget cuts left the county schools with what school officials called funding inadequate to support a system of free local schools.

Mediation failed to resolve the conflict and the school board filed its suit.