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Article 36

January 20. 2007 1:00PM

Davidson, counties statewide seek Medicaid relief

The Dispatch

North Carolina is the lone state in the union that puts the burden of Medicaid administration costs on its individual counties, which has been a bone of contention between county and state government for years.

At a Jan. 11 and 12 meeting of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, more than 80 delegates voted to place relief from that burden at the top of their list of legislative goals for 2007.

Tellingly, numbers two and three on the list are increasing funding for school construction and empowering local governments to seek alternate revenue streams.

Commissioner Sam Watford, who represented Davidson County at the meeting alongside County Manager Robert Hyatt, noted that the three were interconnected.

"That was mentioned at the meeting, that if you get number one, that's going to help us greatly with numbers two and three," he said.

Watford said school construction woes dominated discussion at the meeting, where officials from 84 of the state's 100 counties discussed how to fund the roughly $10 billion in needed construction projects across the state. Medicaid relief, he said, was the subject of less discussion.

"There seemed to be a consensus" that it should be the top priority, Watford said.

Watford, on behalf of the county, cast a vote to keep the priorities as they are. He said Thursday he was encouraged by the support of the state legislators representing the county - Reps. Jerry Dockham, R-Davidson, Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, and Larry Brown, R-Forsyth, and Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, have all pledged their support for Medicaid relief in the past.

That relief, should it be granted in the future, would likely play a part in defraying the skyrocketing costs associated with new school construction. The list of priorities also calls for state government to aid counties in meeting those needs through a statewide bond referendum as well as authorizing counties to seek alternate means of raising revenues.

Davidson County's budget for 2006-07 estimates $52.2 million in property tax revenues, assuming a 96.75 percent collection rate. Of that revenue, an estimated $7.8 million - about 15 percent - will go toward costs associated with administering Medicaid.

That amount represents a little more than half the current cost of a new elementary school.

Last year, the state implemented a cap on individual counties' Medicaid costs, establishing a pool of more than $20 million to handle the surplus if a county goes over its anticipated spending. Whether or not those first-come, first-serve funds have been sufficient to meet the demand has yet to be seen, but Hyatt said that action is promising.

"I think there was a recognition by the state that there's an issue there," he said. "We're very encouraged that the state has it on the radar."

Glen Baity can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or glen.baity@the-dispatch.com.

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