Counties concerned by potential for state cost-shifting

Posted February 17, 2011 5:47 p.m. EST
Updated February 17, 2011 6:57 p.m. EST

— County officials across North Carolina expressed concern Thursday over Gov. Beverly Perdue's plan to balance the state budget by shifting some costs to the county level.

Perdue's budget proposal would have counties picking up about $200 million in expenses that the state has traditionally handled, such as paying worker's compensation premiums for teachers, buying new school buses and financial support for non-instructional school employees.

"This signals a fundamental shift in state responsibilities to county government," said Kevin Leonard, director of government relations for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

Lawmakers have repeatedly assured the group the state budget wouldn't be balanced on the backs of local governments, Leonard said, and county officials statewide are alarmed that Perdue's plan would do that.

"The phones have started ringing already about the governor's budget proposal," he said. "We are just concerned at the trend that it shows that they are pushing things to the local level to fix the problems of the state."

In addition to the cost-shifting, Perdue's budget proposal calls for shifting proceeds from the North Carolina Education Lottery from debt service to pay off school construction projects to a college scholarship fund.

Leonard said the moves could force counties to raise their property tax rates to pay for the added expenses.

"I think it's really unfair. I think it's unfortunate," said Michael Page, chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Page said he has already heard from people asking him not to increase their taxes again after commissioners raised them last year to help limit cuts to the Durham Public Schools' budget.

"We did that last year. We are going to have to be very reluctant about that," he said. "I'm really concerned because we really don't have the resources at this particular point (for the added expenses)."

Durham County resident Wayne McFarlane said he thinks a property tax increase might be inevitable.

"If it's across the board and everybody can take a little bit of the burden until we can move out of this, then I would say that's fair," McFarlane said.