County leaders from Haywood, Jackson, Macon and other western counties gathered for a regional meeting of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners at Western Carolina University last week to review their individual and mutual concerns about the latest batch of bills to come out of Raleigh.
The most troublesome is the governor’s budget, and specifically its changes to lottery funds.
“This is the number one big issue in the budget,” said Kevin Leonard, deputy director of the NCACC.
When the lottery was created, proceeds were promised for education — with 40 percent earmarked to help counties with school construction and maintenance. That amounts to about $180 million; however, the governor’s budget would only allocate $100 million.
“We need that money to take care of the backlog of maintenance needs. We need that $180 million,” Leonard said.
A reduction in school construction funds for counties wouldn’t be new, Leonard said. Since the recession, counites haven’t been getting the full 40 percent. During the last four years, NCACC calculated that counties lost out on $289.3 million in lottery funds and $346.9 million in school construction money.
“This is a significant advocacy point when you are talking to your legislators,” Leonard said. “Now is our time. Now is our time to step up.”
The governor also wants to redirect the lottery surplus, mostly unclaimed prize money amounting to about $40 million a year. It now goes to counties to be spent at their discretion on school construction and maintenance. But the governor wants to put it toward digital learning devices and computers.
“We are in favor of digital learning. However, we need the monies to take care of basic needs of school construction first and maintenance,” Leonard said. “Let’s get that money restored and then do digital learning.”
The song and dance isn’t a new one for counties. Unfunded mandates, budget cuts and government reorganizations — every legislative session, county leaders across North Carolina must fight other lobbyists and persuade legislators to vote against bills introduced into the General Assembly that are possibly detrimental to county operations.
Another point of consternation in the governor’s budget for commissioners in the western counties is funding for the Rural Economic Development Center and Golden Leaf Foundation, both nonprofits that award grants to poor, rural counties for economi development projects.
The governor’s budget would reduce allocations to the Rural Center from $16 million to $6 million and eliminate all $65 million in funding for Golden Leaf — a worry for counties that benefit from the grants the agency gives out.
“The Rural Center has been a very big advocate for us in the western counties,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, adding that funding for crucial projects would be harder to get. “Who is going to get into the cookie jar first?”
NCACC leaders suggest that county commissioners use specific examples of beneficial projects the Rural Center and Golden Leaf money has funded — from a livestock market for cattle farmers to high-speed internet for schools — so legislators can attach the money to something concrete.
Jackson County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam voiced concerns about a state Senate bill that would consolidate the number of N.C. Department of Transportation Divisions from 14 to seven. Each division covers a specific geographic area. Debnam feared that the rural western counties would become neglected if grouped in with larger, more urban counties.
“We will never see another yellow state truck this side of Balsam,” Debnam said. “They are going to concentrate on higher population areas.”
Other points of interest listed by the gathered boards of commissioners included: protecting funds for parks and recreation, receiving election machine maintenance money from the federal government, keeping inmate medical costs low and banning synthetic drugs. Haywood County commissioners also specifically mentioned a bill that would raise the county’s tourism tax rate.
Leaders with NCACC encouraged commissioners to get to know their representatives, especially new legislators who might not know what its like to serve in county government.
“We take it for granted that they understand county government. But that’s not true,” said David Thompson, executive director of NCACC.
As of April 10, legislators had filed 1,660 bills — about 20 percent of which could affect counties in some way, shape or form.
“What we do is so related to what the state does,” Thompson said. “We need our county commissioners to be involved and active.”