Sampson County will join many others this week in sharing their concerns and goals for the future, through delegates, as part of a biannual initiative of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners to ensure those top goals of collective counties are relayed to lawmakers.
The NCACC Legislative Goals Conference is the culmination of a months-long process to determine the county legislative agenda for the upcoming biennium of the N.C. General Assembly. The conference, spread over a day and a half, is the final step of the process where all counties can have thorough discussion, deliberation and debate on the issues.
“It’s a chance to be there with other commissioners who share similar concerns and see what we can do as a 100-county body,” said Commissioner Jefferson Strickland, who has become a regular attendee of the conference and participant in the NCACC process. “It’s a chance to share those concerns, push for what the state’s counties want to see as a whole and come to a common goal.”
The NCACC Legislative Goals Conference starts today (Thursday) and extends until tomorrow at the Sheraton Imperial in the Research Triangle Park. Strickland, who is a member of the District 6 NCACC Board of Directors, including Sampson, Harnett and Cumberland counties, will serve as the voting delegate for Sampson. Every county in attendance has one vote and there is no proxy voting.
“If I’m not there, I won’t have a chance to fuss about it,” said Strickland cheekily.
The goals conference is designed to encourage participation, as well as provide a balance between inclusiveness and respect for the efforts of the committees and the board up to this point. Strickland will be accompanied by assistant county manager Susan Holder on Thursday, and county manager Ed Causey on Friday.
“What has happened to this point is the Boards of Directors have heard proposed goals from various counties, and there are also particular committees within the structure of the association that handle the various facets — taxation and finance, public safety …” said Holder. “There are committees that have vetted the ideas that have come from the counties.”
The conference is the last step, where the gaggle of ideas are brought to the mass of county representatives for consideration, including the priority list. That list can be modified or re-prioritized at the conference, setting the final priorities of the NCACC to be submitted to state legislators.
“They strive to have all 100 counties represented, and they discuss, deliberate and debate,” said Holder. “They have rules designed to encourage participation. I was fortunate enough to go last year and they have a room where every county has a seat. They bring the proposed goals to the discussion of the body, and questions can be raised from the body. The committees can answer questions, and then there is a vote, up and down, from the delegates.”
As a member of the NCACC Board of Directors, Strickland actually worked to develop the goals, and said they are in line with what he believes should be relayed to legislators.
The top five legislative goals, as ranked by the NCACC Board of Directors last month, are to oppose shift of state transportation responsibilities to counties; reinstate ADM (Average Daily Membership) and lottery funds for school construction; oppose unfunded mandates and shifts of state responsibilities to counties; preserve the existing local revenue base; and ensure adequate mental health funding.
“I’ve been a part of this process,” said Strickland. “I helped formulate these objectives, and, while they might not be in the order I proposed, I voted in favor of these. I’m OK with these. I just have to see how that plays out.”
Aside from the top five goals, however, there are several categories within which the NCACC provides a plethora of guiding principles and legislative goals. Among those categories, the NCACC shines the light on issues concerning agriculture, environment, health and human services, intergovernmental relations, justice and public safety, public education and tax and finance.
“There are individual goals under the various categories. Generally, there are goals per section, but they always choose five top legislative goals,” said Holder. “Those are the goals that the association wants to put at the forefront of discussions with the Legislature.”
Opposing the shift of state transportation responsibilities to counties, slated as the top priority, was similarly the top goal last year, Holder said. Reinstating ADM and lottery funds for school construction was also in the second priority spot last year, and is proposed to stay there again.
“I think restoring lottery funds has to be near the top,” remarked Strickland, who also cited unfunded mandates from the state, specifically any shift in funding responsibility for secondary roads to counties. “I don’t know of anyone who wants to see that happen.”
Sampson County finance officer David Clack said the ADM funding, which is not for new school construction, but can be used to pay for debt service, was counted on by Sampson when moving forward with local projects to build new schools in recent years.
“The ADM funding is what Sampson County had pledged to use toward paying our 1999 COPs (Certificate of Participation) issue, somewhere in excess of $600,000, which has been gone for the last five years maybe,” said Clack, referring to the tax-exempt, taxpayer-supported bonds issued by state.
“This is money (the county) has already obligated,” noted Holder.
The lottery funds go hand-in-hand with the ADM funding, Clack noted. Seeing them decrease from where they were several years ago has also acted to affect the budget, county officials said.
“The lottery funds is what we pledged to pay our most current COPs issue of USDA debt for our last building of schools, which was the three high schools and Roseboro Elementary School, (whose) debt service will be coming on next year,” said Clack. “They cut the lottery funds for school construction significantly. This year will be the third year it has been cut by a significant amount. The county is having to come up with that money and we’re using part of our debt reserve to make it up.”
Any unfunded mandates and shifts of state responsibilities to counties will only compound matters, and leave counties to ax budgets even further in order to take on additional expenditures — a prime reason for the wave of opposition to any such move.
Holder said unfunded mandates at the state and federal level have long been a concern, one that has only grown with economic dips in recent years.
“This is an ongoing concern of the board for as long as I’ve worked for the county,” she said.
Strickland said the conference, in addition to organizing a thoroughly mulled list of objectives for lawmakers, allows the opportunity for representatives from counties across the state to fellowship and compare notes.
“It lets us see how we’re alike and how we’re different on these issues,” said Strickland, “and make sure there are things we’re not overlooking.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.