Road cost shift has counties concerned
By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 25, 2010 1:46 PM
The looming legislative short session is expected to be something of a wild card as Wayne County government leaders begin an already challenging budget process.
"I think we are doing the right (budget) things," County Manager Lee Smith said. "We are trying to line things up, but the short session, who knows? The budget, who knows? We have the short session coming and I am real concerned about that."
Just this past Tuesday, Emergency Services Director Joe Gurley was unable to attend a department heads meeting in order to be in Raleigh to attend a 911 Committee meeting with Rep. Efton Sager. The county is trying to convince the state to re-examine how 911 revenues can be used. Currently, the revenues can be used only for equipment for incoming 911 calls. County officials would like to see the state expand the money's uses so that it could be better used locally, Smith said. Had the funds been available, they could have helped the county pay for its new $10 million communications system, he pointed out.
While that is one area where Smith is hopeful, there is another that has him and other county officials across the state concerned -- the possibility that the legislature will try to shift some highway maintenance costs to local governments.
Such a move could mean another 11 cents or more added to the county tax rate, Wayne officials calculatae.
Senate Bill 758 (Transfer Secondary Roads to Counties) was introduced by Sens. Dan Clodfelter and Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County last spring. The bill didn't go anywhere during the long session. However, with the state facing continuing budget difficulties, the issue is on the table.
According to the state Associated of County Commissioners' Web site, the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors state and federal budgets, estimates that North Carolina will face a $4.4 billion budget shortfall in 2010-11.
"Clearly, the General Assembly faces a difficult task in trying to keep a balanced budget for 2010-11," association President Mary Accor wrote.
Neither Smith or Ms. Accor are convinced the issue is dead even though Gov. Beverly Perdue and Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti have told the association that they are not in favor of shifting any costs -- either maintenance or construction -- for secondary roads to counties.
"Unfortunately, it is not that easy," Ms. Accor wrote. "And remember this, neither Gov. Perdue nor Secretary Conti gets a vote in what decisions the General Assembly makes when they put together a balanced state budget for 2010-11, a point that Gov. Perdue acknowledged when she said, 'I can't control everything the General Assembly does.'"
"I don't think it is (dead)," Smith said. "I think it is something that you will have to stay on top of because if we are not careful we are going to get saddled with that and if we do we are talking $4 million to $5 million locally. You are talking 10 or 12 cents (on the tax rate). Based on some of the things now being required, improvements in maintenance, you are probably in that 14-to-15-cents area now. That would be devastating, devastating.
"All of that is an avalanche. You will have more coming after that. Before you know it you will be like South Carolina and you will have the disparity of a poor county, and I will say a rich one, a county that has greater sustainable revenues. They (rich counties) will have great roads and the (poorer) one next door will have bad roads. If that happens we are in trouble. All of these counties are going to be in trouble. That is not the way for the state to pass the buck. That is a bad scenario for the public, for trucks out on the road. That is a bad way to do business."
According to information provided by the association the following tax increase would be needed for local counties to offset the added cost of road maintenance:
* Duplin 17.6 cents
* Greene 32 cents
* Johnston 8.1 cents
* Lenoir 14.2 cents
* Pitt 6.1 cents
* Sampson 22.1 cents
* Wayne 10.9 cents
* Wilson 8.9 cents.
Ms. Accor said it is "imperative" that legislators be told about the devastating impacts that would be felt by counties if the state were to shift responsibility for secondary road funding.
She noted that nearly $550 million was budgeted by the Department of Transpor-tation for the secondary road system in 2008-09.