Legislators hear city concerns
High Point officials told state lawmakers Monday that their actions in the upcoming session of the North Carolina General Assembly could have significant impact on city taxpayers.
In a special meeting with members of the Guilford County legislative delegation, city leaders outlined three possible initiatives at the state level that they said could translate into the loss of about $1.7 million for High Point — an amount equivalent to about 2 cents on the city’s property tax rate.
If the state eliminates hold-harmless payments to High Point and other local governments, imposes a new unemployment payroll tax on cities and counties and takes away cities’ ability to collect business license tax revenue, it could leave city officials with little choice but to recommend a property-tax-rate increase for the third year in a row.
“We’ve got the same pressure on us to keep taxes down as you all have to keep them down,” City Manager Strib Boynton told the legislators. “Where we sit here in High Point, we have to live with the consequences of what’s done in Raleigh. ... It would translate into some tax increases here, and we want to avoid that, if we can.”
State Reps. Alma Adams, Marcus Brandon, John Faircloth and Jon Hardister, along with Sen. Trudy Wade, attended the session.
City leaders also asked that state funding for the High Point Market be restored to 2009-10 levels of $1.2 million for transportation services and $802,000 for marketing purposes. The state has cut market funding in recent years to its current level of $1.65 million.
The lawmakers voiced support for a proposed housing receivership bill that Brandon plans to introduce in the legislature that would give High Point and Greensboro a new avenue for repairing dilapidated residential and commercial properties by having a court-appointed receiver take over the property.
Brandon said the cities’ current enforcement measures aren’t adequate in dealing with this problem.
“If you just ride around in some areas, you can clearly see that there have been houses and buildings that have been boarded up since I was a baby,” he said. “It becomes a rights issue of the people who live in those communities where their property value goes down because of these boarded-up houses and buildings that have been there for decades.”
The properties sometimes languish for years when they are owned by banks or heirs who make no repairs to them.
“(Owners are) either not able, not willing, or they can’t be found,” said city legal advisor Fred Baggett. “The ultimate alternative is just to knock them down, which is a cost to the city and takes, potentially, a decent piece of housing out of existence. We do get a lot of compliance in our code enforcement programs, but there are situations that just cannot be solved without some additional tool, and this would, we think, fill that gap.”
He said another issue the city is lobbying against involves a bill that came up last session that could have required the city of Durham to extend its utilities outside its corporate limits. If the measure became law, it could set a troubling precedent for cities, he said, because they would be required to provide water and sewer service to developments without being able to annex them and collect revenue from them.
Baggett also voiced support for possible legislation that would give local companies that do business with the city a preference in the competitive bidding process.
Councilwoman Becky Smothers asked if there has been any indication the legislature might revisit the idea of privatizing the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control system. The state has studied the issue of opening up liquor sales to private retailers, but such a move would come with a cost to local governments, which receive revenue from the current system, in which the state has a total monopoly over liquor distribution and sales.
“It’s only one of many things on the table when you talk about tax reform,” said Faircloth. “I certainly wouldn’t sit here and say, ‘No, that won’t come up.’”