03/31/09 — County rejects state's plan for roads

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County rejects state's plan for roads

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 31, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County officials are warning residents that their property tax rate could see a minimum increase of 6 cents -- from 76.4 to 82.4 cents per $100 of value -- should the state transfer maintenance of secondary roads to the counties.

Construction costs, which also would be passed onto counties, would be an additional expense, pushing the needed tax increase to almost 10 cents.

"This would be a disaster," County Manager Lee Smith said this morning. "It just has disaster written all over it."

For anyone with $150,000 worth of taxable property, a 10-cent increase would mean another $150 in taxes.

Smith Friday began raising the alarm through a mass e-mailing to about 800 people and organizations concerning a state Senate bill that would shift the responsibility and costs for secondary roads to the counties.

Smith said he has received assurances from local legislators Sen. Don Davis (D-Greene) and Reps. Efton Sager (R-Wayne) and Van Braxton (D-Lenoir) that they will fight the proposal.

"They are saying that this is not going anywhere, but will die in committee and that they will do all in their power to ensure that it does," Smith said.

Senate Bill 758 was introduced Monday, March 23 by Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) and Sen. Daniel Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg). It was referred to the Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget March 24.

If enacted, the bill would become law Jan. 1, 2011.

"This cost and responsibility must not be passed to counties," Smith said.

During the 2007 legislative session, counties were given optional authority to help finance public streets, highways and bridges. The authority had not been sought by counties, and through the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, counties adopted a goal to oppose any legislation that shifts the state's responsibility for funding transportation construction and maintenance projects to county governments.

At that time, Smith warned county commissioners that such "voluntary" participation would be nothing more than a prelude to mandated participation.

Smith noted that the bill's two sponsors represent a large area with a larger tax base. While more prosperous counties might be able to afford to build and maintain roads, poorer ones wouldn't, he said.

That, he said, would lead to a disparity in the type and condition of roads from county to county.

Also, devoting a large portion of property tax dollars to roads would make it more difficult to undertake capital projects. There also is a danger it could weaken a county's credit rating and its ability to borrow money as well, he said.

Wayne County has 884 miles of secondary roads. Smith said it was incorrect to say that only local traffic uses the roads as a means of justify the bill. In some counties, the local roads are thoroughfares as well, he said. He cited Tommy's Road as an example.

In some states it is the county's responsibility to build and maintain roads, Smith said. However, if the state is going to place that burden on counties, then the state needs to take on something else to offset the counties' added expense.

According to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the state is facing a $65 billion dollar road funding shortfall over the next 20 years.

As such, counties can expect further attempts to shift responsibility for the maintenance and construction of roads to a county's property tax base.