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Funding issues dominate commissioners’ legislative goals

By David Bodenheimer
The Dispatch
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.

North Carolina counties and their governing commissioners voiced strong opposition to any shift of secondary road funding responsibilities to their level and also emphasized the need for the state to reinstate the lottery and average daily membership funding sources for new school construction.

These were the top two goals from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners’ biannual Legislative Goals Conference that was held in Durham two weeks ago.

In what is sure to be a difficult year financially at the state level, the commissioners’ goals reflected keeping burdensome costs associated with the nearly $3.7 billion budget shortfall from trickling down to the county level.

DOT’s proposal of shifting responsibility was met with overwhelming contention, said Davidson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Sam Watford, who attended the conference. Watford said such a move in Davidson County would be a huge burden.

There is absolutely no way we could afford that,” he said. “You couldn’t even estimate it. Some people estimated as much as (increasing) 20 cents on the property tax rate in the counties. We don’t even want that to come up as an option.”

Other priorities were to ensure again sufficient funding for the mental health system, protect the local revenue base from any further incursions by the state and to authorize all counties to enact any revenue options — such as prepared meals taxes or hotel taxes — that have been granted to at least one county already.

Watford was pleased to hear support for lottery and ADM funding, as Davidson County is at the beginning stages of work on the new middle school in the northern end of the county. More than $250 million of lottery and state corporate income tax revenues for public school capital needs were diverted by the state in the past two years to help balance the budget. In 2009, Davidson County Schools had to return $818,029 to the state.

We plan on using the lottery funds to help us repay the debt on these new (school) buildings,” Watford said.

Overall, Watford said he was pleased with goals settled on by commissioners statewide. The conference concluded a months-long process that started in mid 2010, as more than 30 counties submitted over 200 goals for consideration. Proposals were reviewed by seven steering committees.

Mainly, our priority was to try and maintain the existing funding that we have and to not cut the state budget on the backs of the county commissioners,” he said.

One area of concern, at least for Davidson County commissioner Fred McClure, was some talk about the state only funding one school system per county. McClure, who served as voting delegate for Davidson County, said it’s concerning since Davidson County has three school systems but stressed it’s nothing that has been finalized.

“It’s a policy statement; it’s not done,” McClure said. “But basically it gives the idea that the association of commissioners wants only one school system and that’s not exactly what it says. I was trying to add some clarifying language to that policy statement to say that we want the counties to decide, and we don’t want the state to prohibit.”

McClure said his clarification or attempt to add that language to the statement was shot down.

“It would hurt us pretty good if they (the state) did that,” McClure said. “If we consolidated systems, we have to pay everybody for two years (while the merger is completed). An unfunded mandate from the state is basically what it would amount to.”

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