04/20/10 — Court to Duplin County: Pay up

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Court to Duplin County: Pay up

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on April 20, 2010 1:46 PM

ALBERTSON -- The North Carolina State Supreme Court will not revisit a 2008 ruling that the Duplin County Board of Commissioners must pay the Duplin County Board of Education nearly $4.8 million.

The court approved a motion made by school board legal representatives to dismiss the county's appeal of the original decision, meaning the court battle is over. County officials learned of the decision late Friday night and discussed it at their quarterly meeting Monday night in Albertson.

Details are still emerging about the decision and what it will mean for the county, Duplin County Manager Mike Aldridge said.

The manager and commissioners have yet to confirm whether the county will be liable for legal fees for both sides involved with the court battle. The county also does not yet know when the money must be paid to the school board or whether the amount is a one-time or recurring payment.

"Right now, we know very little, other than we have to pay," Commission Chairman Cary Turner said.

County officials plan to meet Thursday with their lawyer, Mike Yarborough, to discuss the ruling and what will happen next.

But Aldridge said the county does not have the money in its fund balance to pay the $4.8 million without dipping below the 8 percent minimum fund balance required by the state.

Commissioner Reginald Wells said the current situation is a result of the commissioners drawing a line in the sand and resisting discussions to come to an out-of-court solution with the school board.

"We knew this was coming," he said, adding that he has previously supported sitting down for a three-on-three meeting between commission and school board representatives.

"In all honesty, Reginald, that was not our fault," Commissioner Frances Parks said.

The commissioners sought to meet with the board representatives but scheduling difficulties were never resolved, she said.

Commissioner David Fussell said the commissioners' options are to reduce county services or raise taxes. To collect the $4.8 million would require what Fussell calculated to be a 20 percent tax increase for Duplin residents.

"For some reason, the school board thinks we're sitting on a pot of gold," Fussell said.

Turner said he stands by his position of not settling the issue during the mediation process during which the Board of Education sought from commissioners a $2 million payment and approval of an $86 million facilities plan, he said.

"Did I want to settle in court? I thank God we didn't," Turner said.

Turner said the court's decision did not make sense after the state Supreme Court reversed a ruling in a similar case in Beaufort County.

"There had to be some political persuasion somewhere," he said.

The court decision is considered an unpublished, 20-day opinion. The judges did not hear the case. The court chose to approve a motion by the Board of Education to dismiss the appeal. The opinion has not been posted to the court's Web site, but after 20 days a copy will be sent to the Duplin County Clerk of Court's office to be posted. At that point, it will be considered a published opinion, Aldridge said.

Although it rarely happens rarely, the court sometimes has chosen to revisit a decision during the 20-day period.

Duplin officials did not initially receive word about the decision from official channels. A county employee first heard a rumor Friday night that a decision had been made, and Duplin County Attorney Wendy Sivori later confirmed the information and sent a briefing to the commissioners.

"It was kind of bizarre," Aldridge said.

Duplin County department heads begin meeting today to begin 2010-11 budget talks.

The Duplin County Board of Education has called a special meeting, scheduled for Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the O.P. Johnson Education Building, to discuss the litigation with the school board attorney. The Board of Education will hold a curriculum session tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the cafeteria at Kenansville Elementary School.