Lawmakers want measured approach to Rural Center's future
Posted July 19, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Some lawmakers said Friday that criticism of the ousted president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center shouldn't condemn the entire organization.
The nonprofit Rural Center, which uses state and federal money to provide grants to support business and infrastructure development in 85 North Carolina counties, was excoriated in a state audit released Wednesday.
Auditors said the center doesn't verify that grant recipients are using their money for the intended purpose, and they called the salaries for President Billy Ray Hall and several vice presidents exorbitant.
Hall resigned Thursday after Gov. Pat McCrory called for changes at the center, and McCrory's budget chief froze the spending of state money by the center and even suggested the state might try to recoup some of the $112 million in the center's accounts.
State Budget Office staffers were at the Rural Center Friday collecting financial information.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has said state funding to the Rural Center should be eliminated, and State Auditor Beth Wood told WRAL News Friday that legislative leaders asked her to push up the release of the audit as they try to finalize a state budget.
Wood said she had planned to release the audit next week, but she finished her comments on the audit early to comply with the request out of the General Assembly. She declined to say who made the request.
"I don't care who's happy and who's not," she said. "I had to put out the facts for the leaders making decisions."
With Hall out, Democratic lawmakers said state officials need to look over the Rural Center's entire operation before passing a final judgment on it.
"Now that the controversial character has been removed and he's voluntarily done so, I think we need to help the center any way we can to reshape and set priorities so they can continue helping rural North Carolina," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.
Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, went further, praising the center's work to help struggling communities.
"Fix it," Jenkins said. "I don't think they need to throw the baby out with the bath water."
Wood echoed the lawmakers' concerns, saying informed decisions, not rash ones, are needed.
Berger, R-Rockingham, said the swift action against the Rural Center isn't an overreaction. Rural areas will continue to get economic development assistance from the state, he said, just not the way it's been done before.
"We're not talking about not having resources for rural communities," he said. "We're just saying that the delivery system of the Rural Center is not the appropriate delivery system. Too much money was wasted."