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Article 44

April 09. 2008 9:00AM

County refuses to sign planning agreement

By SETH STRATTON
The Dispatch

The Davidson County Board of Commissioners, again citing its disdain for a weighted voting system the Winston-Salem Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization plans to adopt, did not approve an agreement with the regional transportation group at its meeting Tuesday night.

"If you look at those numbers there, it smacks of heavy-handedness and that really bothers me," Commissioner Dr. Max Walser said.

By a 4-3 vote, the county board refused to sign the memorandum of understanding with the MPO, an organization that prioritizes road projects for a region and votes on what projects should be planned prior to being added to the Transportation Improvement Plan list of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley for months has criticized the weighted voting system for its lack of balance. The system gives Winston-Salem officials 46 out of 100 votes, Forsyth County officials 20 votes and the N.C. Board of Transportation representative, Nancy Dunn, 5 votes. Under the new plan, Davidson County would receive 4 votes while Midway and Wallburg would receive one vote each. Previously, the county, Midway and Wallburg each received one vote out of 29.

Commissioner Chairman Larry Potts told commissioners to save their materials and information on the MPO because the issue would likely come up again in the near future.

"We're going to have to vote on it some time," Potts said.

Wallburg agreed to sign the agreement in January and Midway's council agreed at its meeting Monday night, Mayor George Byrum said. The MPO covers all of Forsyth County and parts of Davie and Stokes counties. It also includes the northern part of Davidson County, containing 12,310 county residents, Midway, with 4,198 residents, and Wallburg, with 1,042 residents, for a total of 17,550 residents. The MPO is requesting all city and county governments within the planning organization's boundaries to sign the agreement by July.

Kepley said some "cosmetic changes" were made to the agreement but nothing concerning weighted voting. County Attorney Robert Hedrick said the weighted voting system is only invoked if a member asks for it during a meeting. The MPO also requires annual dues to the organization; Davidson County's are set at $5,837.

Commissioner Don Truell made a motion to approve the agreement, seconded by Walser, who said he would only agree to sign it if he could include a "strongly worded letter" to MPO officials outlining the county's concerns with the weighted voting system. Hedrick said the agreement was reviewed by the N.C. Attorney General's office and commissioners had to vote on the agreement as is and could not remove the voting structure section from the agreement prior to a vote.

The county board had asked Hedrick to investigate the voting structures of other MPOs around the state. Hedrick said a source in Raleigh told him that several MPOs had weighted voting but none of them were as unbalanced as the Winston-Salem Urban Area MPO.

County Planning Director Guy Cornman said he wanted to make sure the two counties would be able to work together when the new N.C. Highway 109 is built. Cornman said transportation officials are looking at four different routes for the state highway that runs along the eastern part of the county to Winston-Salem and will eventually connect with Interstate 40. Cornman said without a county voice in those talks, Winston-Salem officials could have complete control over where the new route would go.

The planning director said after the 2010 U.S. Census is taken, the MPO boundary will likely extend further south into Davidson County. The northeastern part of the county lies in the High Point MPO with the rest of the county part of the Piedmont Triad Rural Planning Organization.

Robert Hyatt, county manager, warned commissioners that not signing the agreement "could come back to haunt us" in other areas including economic development, the quest for a new Yadkin River Interstate 85 bridge and other regional projects.

Commissioner Sam Watford, who said "since I've always been a small fella," urged the commissioners to "cozy up" and "make friends" with people from bigger cities and communities and not try to become their adversaries.

Voting against signing the memorandum were Kepley, Potts and commissioners Larry Allen and Fred McClure. Supporters were Walser, Truell and Watford.

In other news, commissioners:

Gave special recognition to Mary Jacobs, retiring from the Davidson County Public Health Department after 34 years of service. The 911 center also recognized its Telecommunicator Supervisor of the Year, Jamie Everhart, and Telecommunicators of the Year, Holly Dunn and Loretta Hayes.

Approved employee health insurance and benefits for the next fiscal year. Human Resources Director Jim Tysinger presented a report showing a 2.4 percent rise in insurance claims this year, a slight increase over the previous year but still below the 11 to 13 percent hike in claims the county was experiencing prior to the 2005-06 fiscal year.

The report showed more employees were "migrated ... out of a very rich plan with little employee cost sharing and in 2007, we eliminated that rich plan and migrated approximately 100 employees into the base plan with higher deductibles and coinsurance." The county has also signed up 80 percent of its employees for its wellness program. The report also estimates the county's health care costs to stay within its budgeted amount this year.

Employee health care rates under the base plan with a health reimbursement account will stay the same, but those who are part of a more comprehensive health plan will have to pay slightly more toward their health care costs next year. Some commissioners were concerned the base plan was not very attractive with about 40 percent of employees opting for it and 60 percent opting for the more expensive, comprehensive "buy-in" plan. The board approved the health benefits by a 5-2 vote.

Approved the awarding of a contract to Davie Construction Co. to build the new conference, training and technology building and renovate the Love Learn Resource Center at Davidson County Community College. Davie Construction was the lowest bidder for the project at just more than $4.1 million. DCCC's Board of Trustees unanimously approved awarding the bid to Davie Construction at its Feb. 12 meeting.

Awarded a winning bid of $11,678,600 to R.K. Stewart & Son Inc. for the construction of the Central area elementary school. David Inabinett, the Davidson County Board of Education attorney, said the contractor built Friendship and Tyro elementary schools within scope and budget. The county school board had previously approved R.K. Stewart & Son's bid.

Commissioners next meet at 7 p.m. April 22 on the fourth floor of the Davidson County Governmental Center in Lexington.

Seth Stratton can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 226, or seth.stratton@the-dispatch.com.

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