Legislators: State budget is on target

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 3, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — North Carolina’s budget this year is very close to where it should be, Rowan County’s legislative delegation says.
The three state legislators met with county commissioners Monday to talk about several issues of concern. The budget was first on the list.
“Looking at some of our preliminary numbers… our budget is right on target,” said Sen. Andrew Brock.
He said there may be $200 million to $300 million gap between the state’s revenues and expenses, “which is better than last year, when we were faced with a $2.7 billion spending gap.”
Reps. Fred Steen and Harry Warren agreed.
Chairman Chad Mitchell asked if there is a possibility that the state will increase lottery funds to counties and restore mental health funding.
Those are two priorities of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, which prompted Monday’s meeting by asking each county to sit down with its state legislators.
Steen and Warren said both issues are important, but they probably won’t be addressed until next year’s long session.
Brock said he’s looking at writing legislation on the Senate side about “revamping the lottery commission.”
“We’ve got some major issues with the way things have been handled over there,” he said. “The money is not being handled the way it should be.”
Warren said he doesn’t think it will happen in the short session, but he agreed with Brock and Steen that the state legislature “needs to focus on getting that money back to the counties.”
County Manager Gary Page said Rowan has committed lottery money toward school debt, only to find that some or all those funds were later taken away.
Mitchell then asked the legislators, “Is there anything you forsee that Mr. Page may have to pay attention to when crafting the county budget?”
All three said they would not support passing any “unfunded mandates” to the counties.
“As long as we don’t lose any more ground, we’re OK,” Page said. “I didn’t really expect any new revenue streams this year.”
Commissioner Jon Barber, who came to the meeting late because of another commitment, said he wants to make sure the state doesn’t penalize counties like Rowan who have been “fiscally responsible.”
“The only thing that hurts us right now is those things that are out of our control,” Barber said. “That really comes down to whatever changes you make at the state level.”
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain asked if the sales tax distribution method would be changed.
“The formula used to split up the sales tax went from population based to point of collection,” he said. “In Rowan County, unfortunately, a lot of our citizens shop in neighboring counties.”
Steen agreed that the state needs to look at that, and “there is definitely going to be some tax reform done at the beginning of 2013.”
Brock said it may be difficult for more rural counties to have a voice among more urban counties, which are likely to have a stronger retail sector.
Starting this fall, the more populated counties will have greater representation thanks to redistricting, he said.
Commissioner Carl Ford brought up a local option sales tax. Rowan County has asked for the choice to implement a 1-cent sales tax to help lower its property taxes and balance the budget.
Warren said he’s concerned that retail sales in Rowan could drop if the sales tax is higher.
“I would support that if the voters approved it, and the vote was held during a general election,” he said.
Commissioners also asked about proposed legislation that would give counties the ability to consolidate their health and social services departments.
Once again, the legislators said that will be an issue to take up next year.
Commissioner Jim Sides said he’s not sure Rowan would even want to make a change.
Mitchell suggested that the board look into making a statement saying it’s not interested in humans services consolidation at this time.
The other commissioners agreed. Coltrain and Ford said it still could be a good idea to have the option in the future.
The N.C. Association of County Commissioners also asked counties to discuss county broadband public/private partnerships.
Rowan’s board said it isn’t currently interested in such a partnership here, and the three legislators said it probably won’t come up this year.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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