02/09/09 — County leaders: No new mandates without funding

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County leaders: No new mandates without funding

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 9, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners' laundry list for state legislators can be boiled down to just five words -- "do not mandate without appropriating."

That is, in layman's terms, "don't send us orders without the money to carry them out."

County Manager Lee Smith and County Attorney Borden Parker ran down the list during last week's commissioners' meeting.

Not unexpectedly, several items on the list involve adding to the county coffers -- particularly tax dollars.

The county, Parker said, needs to be vigilant where changes in the collection of vehicle property taxes are concerned. A law requiring the state to collect those taxes has been moved back twice, Parker said.

"You need to ensure it does not happen again. That will pretty much guarantee that you will get the vehicle taxes," Parker told commissioners.

Loopholes in the current collection system are keeping the county's collection rate in the low- to mid-80 percent range.

There is about a three-month lag between the time people renew their vehicle registration and receive their tax notice. The county can block subsequent renewals until the taxes are paid, but even then some people won't pay their taxes until it is time to renew them, county tax officials have said. In other cases, it is difficult to track down people who have not paid their taxes. Also, with a limited staff, it is not always cost efficient, the officials said.

Under the new law, people would pay their vehicle tax when they renew their vehicle registration.

The late fee on delinquent vehicle taxes for the first month is 5 percent, compared to 2 percent for property tax.

"The additional 3 percent on the vehicle tax is kept by the state to fund the computers and software to collect the taxes," Parker said. "It seems, because there is a substantial problem of trying to get people to pay delinquent taxes of any kind, that you might want to consider asking legislators make the interest on the first month of all delinquent taxes 5 percent. That would come to the county as opposed to going to the state."

Commissioners also said they want better access to the revenues generated by 911 fees. The revenue can be used solely for incoming calls.

Having that flexibility would allow the county to use some of those revenues on its new $10 million communications system, Smith said.

In a related issue, Parker noted that the 911 board is weighted toward telecommunications companies. The county is asking legislators to change the board's make-up to make it more representative.

The county also is hoping legislators will support a bill that would allow it to recoup dollars from inmates who are using the county's electronic monitoring program.

Smith said the county probably saves more than $45 per day when inmates are on electronic monitoring as opposed to being in the jail.

"What we are wanting, when an judge decides a person is eligible (for electronic monitoring) we are going to try to capture some of the dollars back," Smith said. "We are talking a cost of anywhere from $4 to $7 a day and we are talking about capturing some of that back. Currently the county is prohibited from doing so as a local government."

While on the topic of the jail, Parker told commissioners that the media are reporting that the state wants to shut down four prisons as a cost-cutting measure.

"What happens when the state says we are full and we have to take them (inmates) ... then the counties have to hold them," Parker said. We can't turn them loose. With the state talking about closing four prisons we will have a worse problem in our jail than we do now.

"I know (Superior Court) Judge (Arnold) Jones is very concerned about the jail and is going to start working on things to try and move people out of there. Well, that is not going to do any good to move them out if the state is going to send us more."

Commissioner Larry Bell said inmates with sentences of six months or less serve their time in local jails.

"Now that could be expanded to people serving lengthy sentences," Bell said.

The county jail has a chronic overcrowding problem and Smith has estimated a new facility would cost the county $53 million.

Commissioners also reiterated their opposition to a state proposal that would reduce the number of beds at Cherry Hospital by 100. Commissioners already have written legislators expressing their opposition, but Commissioner Steve Keen suggested it be repeated.

Another item that concerned commissioners is highways. The state has indicated it might look at counties "voluntarily" participating in road maintenance.

"One thing the county already has expressed substantial concern about is not forcing the counties into the road business," Parker said.

Along with reminding lawmakers that road are a state responsibility, there is a need to remind them that funding schools is a state job as well, commissioners said.

"We need to tell them not to pass down anything without any appropriations," Commissioner Jack Best said. "We need to send a strong letter to our local legislators and (Senate President Pro Tempore Marc) Basnight and (Speaker of the House Joe) Hackney.

"Before they pass anything, they should have economic impact study so they know how much it will cost."

Keen agreed and pointed out that 91 percent of the county budget is mandated or earmarked by either the state or federal government.

The local percentage could increase from 9 to 13-14 percent should the state pass long more costs, he said.

"It is really important to talk to legislators and make sure those cost shifts don't happen because were at the bottom," Parker said.