Looking for local input before the General Assembly takes up new legislative discussion in January, state Sen. Tom McInnis and Rep. Allen McNeill held a meeting with elected leaders and key officials from across Moore County on Monday.
The state’s economic development tier system drew the most comments, with consensus from everyone in the room that it needs to be modified. Other issues singled out included sales tax distribution; state meddling over what are viewed as local level concerns, such as building ordinances for houses; the state’s growing urban and rural divide; and educational concerns related to funding, parity funding for trades-based courses and how public schools are evaluated and scored.
McInnis, who won re-election in November to a third term representing a redrawn 25th District that now includes Moore County, said he was interested in being proactive.
“The tier system is not going to go away,” said McInnis. “We have to work with the system we have and see if we can modify it.”
He was joined by Rep. Allen McNeill, who also won reelection in November in the 78th District that encompasses Randolph County and a few precincts in northern Moore County.
State Rep. Jamie Boles, whose 52nd District includes most of the county, was unable to attend the meeting. He was assisting the family Jason Quick, the Lumberton police officer hit and killed on I-95 while responding to a call on Saturday.
The oft-discussed tier system is based on the average wealth in each of its 100 counties. Moore is among the 20 most well-off “tier three” counties and because of this status, is ineligible for most grant funding and programming monies that other less prosperous counties can compete for.
McInnis mentioned the concept of a “sub-tier” and said it was important to be prepared with ideas and ready to move forward aggressively. “We have a different set of dynamics and different needs in Moore. I’m not interested in doing anything that is harmful to Moore County and its municipalities.”
McNeill agreed that not only was the tier system not going away, and noted Moore County had recently been upheld as a tier three county while some others counties had been recategorized.
“We will have to find a way to work within in to make Moore County better,” he said.
Southern Pines Town Manager said the sales tax expansion was one of the “best things the legislation has done in the last five or six years,” because while it did not add any revenue to Moore County, it also did not take any away.
“With our tier system, it is easy to look at Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen and say we are doing better than a lot of other areas. But the system is broken and we keep seeing more things tied to it,” Parsons said. “Don’t take a broken system and spread it further by introducing it to things like the sales tax distribution.”
He also noted that while Southern Pines and Aberdeen businesses draw a lot of commerce to the area, there are service expenses that increase as well for road infrastructure, policing and other public safety needs.
Robbins Town Manager David Lambert said part of the problem with the tier system comes down to semantics.
“People equate tier status to urban counties. We are a rural area and we get talked about in urban terms,” he said.
Looking ahead he recommended a system that would “carve out exceptions” for communities based on their real needs -- towns like Robbins and Vass. Such action would allow these towns to apply for state assistance like other eligible areas in tier one and tier two counties.
“So they would not be excluded. Make them part of the consideration process, these clearly defined places, to make sure these people who are obviously underrepresented are getting a fair shake,” Lambert said.
“That is how you stop the bleeding now. That is the tourniquet,” he added. “It is not a solution. A heart transplant is what is needed, but this would be a Band-Aid.”
McInnis said when a bill addressing the tier system comes up in committee, they will be ready -- recognizing that the newly reorganized General Assembly means more compromise and across the aisle diplomacy will be required.
“We are 100 percent behind doing something that we can get done,” he said. “We might only get half a loaf but that is the way might have to attack this. A bite her or a bite there.”
In addition to Monday’s discussion session, McInnis asked each of the town leaders and county officials to put pen to paper and send him a list of their three greatest needs, in priority order, and their three greatest wants, in essence a “wish list.”
He also tasked each group represented -- Moore County, local municipalities, Moore County Schools, and Sandhills Community College, and Moore County Sheriff’s Office -- to name one thing the General Assembly could do “for the least amount of cost and the greatest impact on your organizations in the shortest amount of time.”
“You’ve got to have a road map. Without a plan we wander around aimlessly,” McInnis said, “and our challenge in Raleigh is the window of time is so short.”
The state legislature long session runs approximately seven months and the short session runs three months.
“We have to get things in the hopper, if you will,” McInnis said, noting each bill must be researched, written, then run through multiple committees where the content could change drastically. “It is very complex and complicated business that we are in. That is the reason we are having this meeting today, so we can about any issues you may have.”
In education related discussion, a legislative push last year to reduce class sizes means local school districts will need additional classrooms. In response, Gov. Roy Cooper proposed a $1.9 billion statewide school bond package to build new schools and renovate old ones.
McNeill and McInnis both said they supported the initiative and favored bringing it back to the floor for discussion again this year.
“I will fight tooth and nail if they give away the vast majority of the school bond (to urban areas) and cheat us. I’m telling you now there will be a fight,” McInnis said. “We need to make sure we get a fair shake for rural North Carolina and that encompasses a large part of this area of the state.”
McInnis also supports a proposed bill that would permit academically eligible 9th and 10th grade students to enroll in community college courses.
Another topic that drew comments from several municipal leaders was Senate Bill 25, which limits cities and towns from regulating home design standards.
“At the local level, we have builders doing houses in the cheapest and fastest way possible and then they leave, and we the town are left with that,” said Foxfire Councilman Don Boito.
He asked McInnis and McNeill to consider an amendment that would return some authority over housing regulations back to the local level.
Fellow Foxfire Councilman Jon Sedlak said the law was an example of how things have been “going the wrong way” in North Carolina with decision-making that should be on the local level taken away by the state.
“We had certain rules and regulations and we liked them, our citizens liked them. The only ones who didn’t like them were the builders,” Sedlak said. “I don’t understand why you are trying to legislate at the state level to the lowest common denominator.”
Pinehurst Councilman Kevin Drum said it was in the long term best interests of the municipalities and also the state for homeowners to be in a quality home.
“I think there is a better way to wrap this up. When people buy their houses they are also looking at how they can sell it later. This is in best interest of residents of North Carolina,” he said.
McNeill agreed there was room for compromise, and said the law was written to address what was viewed as an overreach in regulations by some cities and towns.
“When the pendulum swings in Raleigh, sometimes it swings too far,” he said. “I think it will swing back and find the middle ground.”
Pinehurst Councilman John Bouldry said he would like to see “a reasonable approach” that would give more control for towns and counties to modify their development ordinances.
County Commissioners' Chairman Frank Quis also spoke in favor of more local control, particularly for an area like Moore County that is facing development pressure and growth.
“We are growing and that is great. We are growing because people want to move here and we need to have control here -- not from Raleigh. We are looking out for the interests of our citizens and you are probably hearing from people looking out for their pocketbooks,” Quis said, speaking directly to McNeill and McInnis. “Sometimes less is more. Less regulation from Raleigh is a good thing.”