03/29/13 — County leaders worry about funding

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County leaders worry about funding

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 29, 2013 1:46 PM

Unfunded mandates, shifting state responsibilities onto the backs of counties and the erosion of state funding for programs like libraries and the Department of Social Services topped the concerns of Wayne County commissioners during their Thursday special session to discuss legislative issues.

Commissioners are particularly uneasy about lingering discussions on the state level to shift the cost of road construction and maintenance to counties. If that were to happen Wayne County's budget would swell by more than $4 million and would mean an 8-cent to 10-cent increase in the local property tax rate.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith and his staff now have a week to condense the nearly three hours of commissioners' legislative discussions into a leaner form in advance of a Friday, April 5 meeting with the county's state legislative delegation. It will be held at 8:30 a.m. at the Goldsboro Country Club.

Smith said he had confirmations from Wayne's entire legislative contingent: Sen. Louis Pate, Sen. Don Davis, Rep. John Bell, Rep. Larry Bell and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, although they have indicated that they will have two hours or less to devote to the meeting.

A few days prior to Thursday's meeting, the News-Argus asked for a copy of the issues to be discussed, only to be told there were no specific legislative issues -- that commissioners would make that call during Thursday's meeting.

However, department heads were at the meeting to talk about legislation that could impact their departments. Some made reference to information sent ahead of the meeting.

Also, handed out was a list of 11 issues of particular interest to the county as well as a printout from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners listing its top five legislative goals and five other "hot topics."

Smith said he sent an email to department managers late last week asking them to let him know of any upcoming legislative issues that might affect their departments.

Along with the transportation issue and unfunded mandates, the association's top five goals include reinstating average daily membership and lottery proceeds for school construction, ensuring funding for mental health and preserving the existing local revenue base.

Wayne County Tax Administrator David Ward told commissioners the tax base is taking a hit because the state continues to expand what qualifies as tax-exempt non-profits.

For example, one exemption would apply to private medical practices whose real property and real business property are purchased by a non-profit hospital. Those properties would in turn be tax-exempt.

Legislators need to be made aware of how such actions affect the local tax base, Ward and commissioners said.

They also need to be aware of an administrative decision by the state Division of Medical Assistance that threatens how much Wayne NET (Non-Emergency Transport) is reimbursed for transporting Medicaid patients, said Blair Tyndall, county EMS and safety manager.

The decision in effect privatizes such transports which would affect the county's Department of Social Services as well. Made last August, the decision will set up a state broker to manage the transportation.

There has been no discussion about the decision and state EMS officials were not consulted, Tyndall said.

Originally it had been thought that ambulances services like the county's would not be affected, he noted.

Currently Wayne NET charges $200 per transport. The reimbursement rate, if the county was to get the business, would be $30 per transport, making it unfeasible for the county to even participate, Tyndall said.

Also of concern is that by state law the county commission is responsible for providing both emergency and non-emergency care by ambulance.

The law says the board is responsible for policing or supervising any ambulance service that is operating in Wayne County. There are two in the county, Wayne NET and a private company, he said.

"If this initiative were to go through, then the way the state has explained it to us other private companies would be allowed to come into the county," he said. "They may be from other states, definitely from other counties. Once they begin operating in our county we are responsible for their actions."

Commissioner Joe Daughtery asked how companies could make any money at $30 per transport.

One way is volume, Smith said.

Also, they are not required to have the same kind of equipment or certification that Wayne NET does, Tyndall said.

Nor do the people on the ambulances have any medical training, he said.

Also of concern is House Bill 4, which has already been signed into law, but legislators still need to know it will affect the county, said Sue Guy, human resources director. Wayne County has in recent years spent only between $30,000 to $35,000 for unemployment insurance. The new law would require the county to set aside one percent of its payroll, or about $400,000.

Money has to be replaced as used to keep the amount at $400,000.

The money would be set aside on the state level and commissioners and Smith expressed concerns that it would be used by the state.