They say, “There’s no harm in asking,” and that’s exactly what counties across the state are doing after a two-day conference in Raleigh held to figure out what the counties should ask for.
Representatives of counties across the state got together on Thursday, Jan 12 and Friday, Jan. 13, as part of the NC Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) Legislative Goals Conference.
At the conference, held this year at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley, representatives of counties across the state cobbled together the NCACC’s “legislative agenda” – a list of items the counties want state legislators to put into action and one that lets them know where the counties’ priorities lay.
Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp, who has served on the NCACC Legislative Goals Committee, was the only Guilford County representative who attended the two-day conference where he and other county officials from around the state hashed out the final agenda, which will be presented to state legislators.
“We got a lot accomplished,” Trapp said of the two-day event that happens every two years.
This year Guilford County didn’t submit any items to be placed on the agenda, but plenty of other counties did, and those were weeded through by the delegates before the group came to an agreed upon final set.
Trapp said one big thing he wanted to see going in was for the counties to make a request to increase the age at which juvenile offenders in North Carolina could be tried as adults. That has long been one of Trapp’s priorities and it was one of the top five priorities North Carolina counties want to see in coming state legislation.
Roughly 300 people attended the conference and Trapp said it was an interesting mix with some dynamic discussion since it was an assembly of people representing diverse counties – coastal and mountain, urban and rural, large and small.
“Each county only has one voting delegate,” Trapp said.
The top goal for NCACC in 2017 involves school funding, which is always a major (and usually sore) subject for counties when they create their budgets each year. School spending almost always makes up a giant portion of county budgets. For instance, each year Guilford County spends nearly 45 percent of its budget funding school operations and paying off school debt.
The NCACC legislation calls for the state to “Seek legislation to establish a new state-county partnership to address statewide public school capital challenges – including but not limited to maintenance, renovation, construction and debt – through a dedicated, stable funding stream that is consistent from county to county and sufficient to meet the school facility needs of all 100 counties.”
The second priority adopted as a legislative goal is to “Seek legislation to repeal the statutory authority under N.C. Gen. Stat. 115C-431(c) that allows a local school board to file suit against a county board of commissioners over county appropriations for education.”
At times, when local school boards feel their school system has been dramatically underfunded by county commissioners, school boards sue the county’s board of commissioners. That has happened in Guilford County before and it’s a threat counties face each year when they do the budget. If NCACC gets its way, state legislators would take away that threat.
The group’s third priority calls for state legislators to support efforts to “preserve and expand the existing local revenue base of counties,” as well as “oppose efforts to divert to the state fees or taxes currently allocated to the counties to the state.” It encourages the state to give counties “more funding local option revenue sources already given to any other jurisdiction.”
Trapp joked that the counties were still trying to get NC Education Lottery money that the state promised them years ago.
The counties also objected to unfunded mandates from the state – legislation that places costly new requirements on the way counties operate without providing funds to cover those costs.
Filling out the top five priorities for the counties are requests for legislators to support increased state funding for transportation, construction and maintenance needs, and legislation and funding to raise the “juvenile jurisdiction” age from 16 to 18 – with the exception of felony crimes.
He said the move wasn’t without its opponents at the conference.
“That had a lot of debate,” he said.
Trapp also said there were other proposals that got shot down. For instance, he said, one that was presented but not approved was a request to allow an economic tier system for sections of counties, not just whole counties. The economic tier system is a ranking of the state’s 100 counties that denotes which ones are eligible for aid in certain programs. It uses a formula that includes population and economic indicators to determine which counties are the most financially distressed. Tier 1 counties, the worst off, are eligible for more state aid and more state-backed programs than Tier 2 counties. Guilford County recently “dropped” from a Tier 3 county to a Tier 2 county. Trapp said certain parts of Guilford County would qualify for Tier 1 if districts were judged independently.
He said highly distressed District 8, which he represents, shouldn’t be classified in the same way as more prosperous areas in Guilford County.
“If Guilford County is a Tier 2 and Tier 1 is the worst, my district could have been a Tier 1,” Trapp said.
That would make his district eligible for Tier 1 state aid even though Guilford County isn’t categorized that way.
Trapp said most of the goals go through the ordinary screening process, and are therefore vetted by a committee, but he said he didn’t approve of another method that’s sometimes used. Agenda items can be submitted at the last minute, and they sometimes get considered without committee approval.
“If you are strong enough in the state association, you can maneuver past the vetting process,” Trapp said.
When Trapp, a Democrat, was asked why a board with a Republican majority sent him to the conference as Guilford County’s delegate, Trapp said, “I don’t think any of them wanted to go.”
The fact that Trapp served on the NCACC legislative goals committee likely also had something to do with his selection for the task.
Aside from the five priority goals, some other items endorsed by the group are to encourage legislative efforts to make agriculture more of an economic driver in the state, expand digital infrastructure and broadband capability to un-served and under-served areas, and increase state funding for behavioral health services and facilities.
The NCACC also expressed a lot of air quality and water quality concerns and also encouraged the state to “support legislation to provide for and fund a comprehensive statewide approach to noxious aquatic vegetation control in public water reservoirs.”
The counties also want to see more unanimity in the state’s tattooing and body piercing regulations as well as increased court and drug court funding and more money for infrastructure, competitive incentives and “coordinated efforts to promote economic development.”