LAURINBURG — State Sen. Tom McInnis said he declines to sponsor a proposed bill that might prevent construction of a new municipal building for the city of Laurinburg.
Laurinburg attorney Michael Schmidt sent out a draft of the legislation last week in hopes that McInnis would join the fight to prevent municipal officials across North Carolina from committing taxpayer money to an unnecessary and costly project.
The legislation would put a formula in place that takes a city’s median income and existing property tax rate into account before elected officials could borrow money for the project. If a spending project was challenged by at least 50 percent of the taxpayers, the matter would go to Superior Court where officials would have to demonstrate the need for the project.
Schmidt said the request is consistent with the North Carolina Constitution that “gives all power to the people.”
Schmidt and several citizens groups have expressed opposition to Laurinburg constructing a new City Hall, whose current price tag exceeds $10 million.
“The power has always and is always by the contract of the constitution with the people in North Carolina. What this proposed legislation does is put a step before the Local Government Commission gets involved that puts the power back to the people, to give them a means to put a check on, you could say, a rogue council, or a council that is obviously getting ready to make expenditures that are so burdensome potentially on the lowest income people in the state of North Carolina.”
But McInnis, whose Senate district includes Scotland County, said there are already sufficient laws in place to protect taxpayers.
“The matter we are talking about is a local issue that needs to be addressed by local citizens for a local solution,” McInnis said.
McInnis said any indebtedness that is caused by a county or city must be approved by the Local Government Commission in Raleigh.
“The Local Government Commission is charged with not allowing any city or county to borrow more than they are able to pay back or do anything of mismanagement of their funds,” McInnis said. “I don’t see this legislation being approved in the Senate or the House because it would usurp the authority of the Local Government Commission.”
Schmidt said he is aware of the commission that regulates such matters, but his legislation would provide more protection for taxpayers.
“The design of this is a preliminary step before you get to a commission of nine members sitting on a board in Raleigh who are not in this locale,” Schmidt said. “This is a step to … reinvest the notion of power of the people in their own community to have control over their financial future.”
In addition, the proposed legislation would give a Superior Court the authority to nullify a city council’s vote by finding that its actions were arbitrary or capricious, or would be a nonessential discretionary expense not in the best interests of the citizens. The proposed law also provides for what happens if the court found in favor of a city’s proposed project. The citizens who had taken the matter to court would not have to pay court costs and attorney fees, Schmidt said.
“The petitioners would not be winning that case but the city could not request attorney fees against those citizens,” Schmidt said. “The amount of attorney’s fees in a case like that could be so heavy it would discourage — it would chill the right of the people to take a step to contest the suspect decision by the council.”
Schmidt said he plans to reach out to other state lawmakers to push the bill.
“Frankly, I would have been pleased had he been positive towards this, but I’m not surprised that he is not inclined to consider it,” Schmidt said. “We hope we may be able to win him over in the future and some others as well. You just don’t get these things overnight. You have to work at them.”
The Laurinburg City Council on Tuesday voted to hold a public input session at 6 p.m. on Oct. 11 with the architectural firm, construction firm, financial consultants and residents. The council also said it will look at ways to scale down costs of a new building.
Financial consultants told the council in July that the city has “very little debt” and approximately $11.1 million in borrowing power.
Reach Terri Ferguson Smith at 910-506-3169.