County seeks sweeps tax, fund waiver

By Mary Katherine Murphy

March 26, 2014

LAURINBURG — Among requests presented by the board of commissioners and County Manager Kevin Patterson to Scotland County’s state representatives in a meeting on Tuesday were an ability to tax sweepstakes parlors and an exemption from the state requirement to restore more than $900,000 to the health department budget.

The commissioners met with state Sen. Gene McLaurin and representatives Ken Goodman and Garland Pierce to remind them of the county’s primary concerns prior to May’s legislative short session. Threading throughout the discussion, as Chairman Guy McCook noted, was a desire by the county for greater latitude in making decisions locally.

“I think the big issue comes down to, we’d like the opportunity to establish our own priorities at the local level rather than being told what our priorities are going to be by the state,” he said. “We have a lot of challenges, but we have a lot of assets in this community and we feel like we have the ability to make good decisions here.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Patterson informally requested a local bill allowing the county to charge a privilege licensing fee for internet sweepstakes.

Unlike municipalities, counties can only charge a business license fee sufficient to cover actual cost of issuing permit. In keeping with Laurinburg’s rate, the county hopes for the ability to charge an annual fee of $2,000 per establishment and $400 for each machine.

Officials estimate that there are at least half a dozen gambling businesses located in the county outside of municipal limits, however the county’s generic business licensing process means that they cannot be sure. In addition to the additional revenue, the special license will enable county awareness of such businesses and illegal activity that may be conducted concurrently with them.

“Any type of high-cash business, especially your smaller businesses, you’re going to be looking for alternate revenue sources, which can be quite creative and they’re often not legal,” Patterson said. “If we know where they are, it will make it easier at least to show up on occasion and check them out.”

Along with the other representatives, Goodman agreed that the county should be able to levy those fees, but predicted that the state may want a piece of the pie.

“I’m 100 percent, I think we ought to do this and I think rural counties need a way to generate revenue that the big urban counties don’t need, other than the property tax,” he said. “What’s going to be our fight is that the state’s going to want the money themselves.”

Also the subject of much discussion was the state requirement that counties restore funding to their health departments greater than or equal to the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Although health department funding has in actuality only decreased by $107,881, H.B. 431 would require that the county fund at the level of that year’s appropriations, or $1.8 million. In the same time period, the entire county budget has been cut by 17 percent.

“The health department is significantly smaller than it was then, well it is on paper,” said Patterson. “It’s not necessarily a whole lot smaller in anything else. They’re a whole lot leaner than they were.”

Dedicating an additional $950,000 to the health department would require a 6-cent increase to the tax rate, a move which the commissioners termed unconscionable and unjustified.

“To be quite honest with you, I cannot see us raising our tax rate 6 cents to increase some mandates that the state is sending our way,” said McCook. “We really need a waiver or an exemption or something on this. If we were not providing quality service at our health department, I could understand the state’s concern over a lack of adequate services, but this is just throwing dollars at issues and that really doesn’t make any sense.”

According to Director David Jenkins, the health department was “top heavy” in 2011, and has since become more efficient in its operations, with enough staff to offer more services for the county’s dollar. Apart from maternity services, a return to which is being explored by health department staff due to the closure of Scotland Memorial Hospital’s maternity clinic, most programs offered at the health department four years ago are still in place.

“I’ve got enough staff in place right now that I can bring some of these clinics back and still offer these services and hopefully provide more for the county for the county’s appropriation,” said Jenkins. “We’re going to prove that we can provide these services to the community and then maybe add key positions as needed.”

McLaurin agreed that counties should be treated on an individual basis to allow for alternative methods of serving their residents.

“Every county is different,” he said. “We have 100 counties; they’re all different. Everybody ought to have flexibility to provide what their citizens need.”

Patterson also raised the issue of the upcoming primary elections and, in the likely event of a runoff for the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate as well as for the county commissioners, the inordinate expense in a historically poorly-attended election. In any race where the top vote-getter does not receive more than 40 percent of the vote, the state requires a runoff to select a final candidate.

There are eight candidates in the race to become the Republican Party candidate for U.S. Senate. Patterson estimated that it will cost $5,000 to open the county’s 10 election precincts for a runoff. Past runoffs have rarely brought more than 200 voters to the polls countywide.

“North Carolina should rely on its excellence in campaigns and say we’re just going to go with winner-take-all, or come up with something,” said Patterson. “Otherwise we’re going to pay $100 per vote in a second primary.”

Education also arose as a topic of discussion between the commissioners and legislators, as the county is typically ranked among the highest in its effort to fund its school system and among the lowest in actual ability to do so. The county’s supplement to teacher’s salaries is currently $1,500, far less than in more affluent counties.

“The constitution says that every child should be entitled to an equal education, the Leandro laws made that very very clear, and when Wake County can afford to pay their teachers $15,000 a year more than they’re paid in Scotland County, then that part of the constitution is being violated because our kids aren’t getting an equal shake,” said Goodman.

Commissioner Bob Davis posed the idea of rallying a group of some 25 county residents to meet with either Gov. Pat McCrory or with House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger to enlighten them to the concerns of Scotland and similar rural counties, a plan which all three legislators supported.

“That one-on-one personal contact is effective,” said McLaurin, who noted in the General Assembly an unequal focus on legislation benefiting larger cities and urban areas.

“The state budget, let’s face it, it’s about priorities just like your county budget is about priorities, and we’ve got to make sure that the state budget focuses on priorities that are important not just to urban areas, but to rural areas and that we’re given a fighting chance,” he said.

Other concerns presented on Tuesday included:

— Restoration of state lottery proceeds to the county to 40 percent from 20 percent. Those monies are spent on capital improvements in the school system.

— The county’s opposition to potential transfer of the cost to maintain secondary roads from the state to the county. Last year, the state spent $900,000 paving secondary roads in Scotland County.

— A request for consideration of aging structures in state inspections of the county detention center, as installation of required two-way communication systems in each cell of the existing jail would, according to Patterson, be a highly impractical undertaking due to the jail’s concrete construction.