RALEIGH — County commissioners from across the state set funding school capital projects at the top of their legislative priorities.
On Thursday and Friday the N.C. Association of County Commissioners met to discuss and eventually agree upon the association’s legislative goals for the upcoming session of the N.C. General Assembly.
Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips is the association’s first vice president. He noted each of the state’s 100 counties have one voting member present at the meeting, though some counties send many more representatives.
The commissioners placed two education funding matters at the top of what they’ll lobby the legislature to do in the upcoming session.
“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,” reads the first of the priorities.
Phillips said the N.C. Education Lottery has had negative effects on funding public education. While the lottery was passed on the premise 40 percent of the proceeds would be directed toward education, a bill which originated in the N.C. Senate did away with that requirement in 2013.
“It destroyed the partnership between the state and counties that existed and funded the capital needs of our public schools,” explained Phillips. “Prior to the lottery, the state helped fund projects through education bonds. That fell apart once the lottery was passed.”
Phillips said the goal is vague, as commissioners across the state would welcome any help in funding the needs of the schools. However, he also offered one possible solution. An small sales tax may be levied by counties, but the funds must be used for public transportation.
Phillips would like to see counties get the option to levy the one-quarter or one-half cent sales tax and use the funds for either transportation or school capital projects.
Priority number two also relates to school funding.
“Seek legislation to repeal the statutory authority…that allows a local school board to file suit against a county board of commissioners over county appropriations for education.”
Phillips said the statute “invites lawsuits” when a school system feels a county is not appropriately funding education. Though such a threat has never been on the table in Surry County, when such action took place in other counties few people came out on the winning side of things.
“Only the attorneys win,” remarked Phillips. “In counties where it’s happened, it’s been a horror story.”
“Support efforts to preserve and expand the existing local revenue base of counties, and oppose efforts to divert to the state fees or taxes currently allocated to the counties to the state. Oppose efforts to erode existing county revenue streams and authorize local option revenue sources already given to any other jurisdiction,” is the third priority.
Phillips noted there are always rumblings of a revenue stream steal in Raleigh.
Another top priority for counties pertains to transportation and roadways.
“Support increased state funding for transportation construction and maintenance needs, and support legislation to ensure that the state transportation infrastructure funding formula recognizes that one size does not fit all and that projects in both rural and urban areas are prioritized and funded.”
North Carolina is only second to Texas in the number of public highways that exist within its borders, said Phillips. There are vast differences in the terrain and the population densities of different areas of the state.
Phillips said the association would like to see the state’s methodology for how it determines which projects to fund “tweaked” to allow for a better balance between urban and rural counties.
Rounding out the top five priorities is “support legislation and funding to raise the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction from 16 to 18 with the exception of felony crimes.”
Phillips described the fifth goal as the most controversial. It is a recommendation of the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, however.
Phillips noted he had heard there would be $20 million in costs associated with the additional services, such as counseling, needed in such a move. Counties will need the state to fund such a move, or else it just becomes another “unfunded mandate” issued from the state to the counties.
The meeting on Thursday and Friday is just the end of a very long process, said Phillips. All 100 counties submit proposed goals. Then committees such as the association’s agriculture committee and general government committee sift through the proposals.
Eventually, the committees make their recommendations to the association’s executive committee, which makes recommendations at the bi-annual meeting which occurred last week, explained Phillips.
On Thursday and Friday commissioners were able to discuss and make amendments to goals before making the final decisions, added Phillips.
At the end of the months-long process, Phillips figures the association walks away with goals which will be beneficial to all of the Old North State’s 100 counties.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.