Rowan, Cabarrus exit Centralina planning group

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Defections from the Centralina Council of Governments continue to grow.
Cabarrus County officials have joined Rowan in notifying the current nine-county regional planning agency that they’re out on June 30. Withdrawal requires a six months notice.
Several municipalities, including Spencer, Norwood and Concord, are also dropping out.
Reasons vary, but many of the decisions come with an undertone of dissatisfaction with the agency and the perceived staff-driven agenda that doesn’t serve some counties and towns well.
Some say Centralina caters more to Charlotte-Mecklenburg than other members.
Officials in Rowan and Cabarrus counties say Centralina tinkered with and thwarted a federally required emission plan or budget that could cost or delay millions of federal dollars for widening Interstate 85 and replacing the I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River.
“We think they have hurt us on the Yadkin River bridge. Cabarrus feels like Centralina hurt them on the widening of I-85. Light rail and I-485 (in Charlotte) is getting higher priority,” said Carl Ford, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Centralina is made up of Lincoln, Gaston, Iredell, Mecklenburg, Union, Anson, Stanly, Rowan and Cabarrus counties. It provides planning and other services to counties and towns in the region. It also acts as a conduit for some federal dollars to counties and municipalities.
Centralina is the largest of 17 regional councils in the state. It has 40 employees.
Centralina’s effort to look at replacing multi-county road planning agencies called Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPOs, with one agency is also causing concerns.
MPOs deal with highway projects and set priorities that play a key role in getting state and federal funding.
About 50 local officials attended an October meeting of the Cabarrus-Rowan MPO in Concord on Oct. 28. Many came away with concerns that Centralina’s staff had slowed or created problems for the federally mandated emissions budgets to improve air quality.
The Rowan-Cabarrus MPO supports county budgets. Others support a regional concept that would better serve Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The process continued for two years, and no emissions budget was approved on the state or federal level. Many involved blame the Centralina staff for dragging out the process through letters to the state.
Officials familiar with the process say if the emissions budget isn’t approved soon, many projects, including the I-85 bridge, are in jeopardy.
After the Oct. 28 meeting, Al Sharp, executive director of Centralina, sent a letter defending his agency’s action related to the emissions plan.
In the letter to Ken Geathers, chairman of the Cabarrus-Rowan MPO, Sharp wrote that he wanted to “correct an apparent misunderstanding that our agency took issue with the 2007 State Implementation Plan.”
Sharp wrote that his agency supported the overall plan, but had concerns with the configuration of the emissions budgets that could become “problematic on a regional scale.”
He went on to point out that at this point, the budgets “do not appear problematic for any of our membership” and went on to call for prompt state and federal approval.
Ford is one of the officials concerned about Centralina’s role in the emissions budgets and impact on the I-85 funding.
And he’s concerned about Centralina wanting to create a super MPO to deal with road projects, which would take away authority from counties and regional organizations like the Cabarrus-Rowan MPO.
“We need to keep the MPO like it is. Everybody is on the same page. Cabarrus and Rowan are working well,” Ford said. “COG has stepped over the line.”
Cabarrus County’s top elected official also has concerns about Centralina’s look at creating a super regional MPO.
“I’m not satisfied that a regional MPO is the best way to go,” Jay White said, adding, “We can do some things better as counties.”
White also made clear he’s not sure all of the counties have the same weight in Centralina. He noted that a committee Centralina set up six months ago to address problems in the organization hasn’t held its first meeting.
The Cabarrus board voted unanimously Dec. 21 to withdraw from Centralina.
Cabarrus commissioners also cited the lack of return for its $39,000 a year membership fee. Officials said the county staff delivers many of the same services offered by Centralina.
On a split vote, Rowan commissioners agreed in November to withdraw from Centralina. It will save the county about $34,000.
Before voting to withdraw, Rowan officials took steps to make sure Rowan won’t lose any federal funds by withdrawing from Centralina.
Others who are dropping out of Centralina have a gamut of reasons.
Concord officials cited value of services as a factor.
“Over time, our council began to question whether we were getting out money’s worth out of our investment with COG,” Mayor Scott Padgett said. “Our perspective is if you are a small town, COG can provide some really important services.”
Padgett also noted that Centralina is making some efforts to look at itself and its role. “They are looking at their role and how they can streamline and become more relevant.”
And if Centralina can revamp itself to be more relevant, Padgett said the council might want to rejoin in the future.
Spencer voted Dec. 8 to terminate its relationship.
Mayor Jody Everhart said the town depended on Centralina staff to help with a proposal to market the old fire station.
The town followed the outlined procedure, got a bid from someone planning to open a business in the old fire station and expected to complete the deal after a 7 p.m. public hearing.
Around 4 p.m. that day, the town attorney advised the sale couldn’t go through because proper procedure hadn’t been followed.
The hearing was canceled and the buyer pulled out.
“After beating it around for six months, we kind of had egg on our face,” Everhart said.
The town of New London in Stanly county also notified Centralina this month it will withdraw on June 30.