Sen. Brent Jackson said the writing was on the wall leading up to the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center’s fallout and shared his confidence rural communities across the state, Sampson included, will be taken care of through a new system.
While he could not say for sure the safety of N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity funds, awarded through the Rural Center and given to two Sampson towns last year, Jackson said other such awards were expected to be protected.
Jackson, R-Sampson, is co-chair of the Senate’s ENR (Energy and Natural Resources) Committee that oversees the Rural Center, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, Department of Commerce and others. Jackson said he worked with committee members to revamp the Rural Center since the end of last year.
“We knew we had to do something different,” said Jackson. “The reason we had to do something different is because when you went to Raleigh to get money for rural North Carolina you had to go to half a dozen places. What we were trying to work on was a one-stop shop. When you see what has happened since November 2012 — the newspaper reports, the state auditor’s report — that was sort of the nail in the coffin.”
In the wake of a state audit released in July, Gov. Pat McCrory called for the Rural Center to be cut off completely. Amid mounting pressure, Rural Center leaders resigned their posts. The Rural Center is currently attempting to revive itself as a smaller entity, but all state funds will be channeled through the N.C. Department of Commerce.
“The auditor’s report was not very complimentary,” Jackson said. “Some of us had known that for a while so we were already prepared to have Plan B put in place — to put the Rural Center under the Department of Commerce and let (that) be the key place to go so you can have one-stop shopping. We have contributed more money to rural North Carolina than has been put in rural North Carolina in many years.”
That one-stop shopping will be through two new entities.
The Division of Water Infrastructure, with oversight of the Water Infrastructure Authority (WIA) and housed in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, will be managed by the director of the Division of Water Infrastructure.
WIA has been appropriated state funds to provide grants to Tier-1 (the 40 most economically-distressed counties) and Tier-2 counties (the next 40 most distressed, of which Sampson is a part) for critical public health infrastructure needs. This division will also distribute federal loan and grant funds to local governments across the state with critical water and wastewater infrastructure needs.
What that essentially means, Jackson said, is that local governments that used to have to apply to four different state agencies for their water and wastewater projects will now have one place to go to get their questions answered and needs addressed.
The state has allocated $87.53 million in 2013-14 and $91.34 million in 2014-15 to the division.
The second entity, the Rural Economic Development Division, with oversight of the Rural Infrastructure Authority (RIA), will be managed by a new assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce. This division will help primarily Tier-1 and Tier-2 counties and provide infrastructure needs, to include water/sewer, natural gas, electrical utility distribution and transportation, for creating and retaining jobs.
There has been $39.08 million allocated in 2013-14 and another $45.6 million budgeted in 2014-15 in state and federal funds.
“That is more money than they have been allocated in many years,” said Jackson of the Rural Center. “Last year, their budget was $21 million. I want you to rest assured that we — and I’m talking about all of us sitting at this table — understand the needs of rural North Carolina. We constantly remind (Legislative leaders) how important rural North Carolina is to the economy.”
Gilbert Owens asked how confident Jackson was that the N.C. STEP money promised to Garland and Roseboro would be given. They were two of 11 towns selected to join the program and were halfway through a two-year revitalization process with the Rural Center when the funding was cut.
The $125,000 N.C. STEP grant incorporates community coaching, leadership training, planning assistance and grants, with $25,000 going toward training and the other $100,000 toward implementing various projects. Neither town got to the $100,000 bulk of the project that was to make the tangible impact in their communities.
“I know everything else that we have been told was in the works, whether it is contractors working or projects that have been promised and already started, would be funded,” said Jackson. “To be honest with you, the STEP program has not been brought to my attention. I know it’s done great things in Garland and in Roseboro. I do not know what the status of that is.”
He said the fallout from the Rural Center is a circumstance that has left a large void, but one he hoped would be filled with a more improved system.
“I know that it is a serious issue for rural North Carolina,” said Jackson, “but I want to assure you we are working diligently to make sure that everything will be seamless, that the projects that are underway will be funded and they will continue to get the money they have been promised.”
Those promises will be fulfilled with a “more streamlined, transparent and efficient” system, he said.
“Maybe it’s going to work out, I hope that it will,” said N.C. Rep. William Brisson. “The Rural Center has been good to rural areas and I hope that those dollars will continue to stay and help the cities and counties with their water and sewer to help bring in industry. We’ll have to wait and see. I hope it will (work). They’ve promised us it will, so I guess we’ll find out in the next couple years.”
Brisson said he talked with some industrial representatives, who expressed optimism for the new way of doing things.
“They feel like maybe we’re on the right track,” said Brisson, “I certainly hope we are.”
Jackson said rural local governments looking to build new water infrastructure and small business owners seeking to expand or relocate in rural areas should not be hindered.
“We understand the importance of getting that money to rural North Carolina,” said Jackson, “and it is my belief that this system will create less red tape and a better allocation of our resources.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.