WILMINGTON — The Robeson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday launched its annual retreat, with board members within the first five hours hitting on issues ranging from economic development and solid waste disposal to property revaluation and Social Services programs.
For the first time since 2010, the commissioners are holding their three-day retreat outside of the county, at a Homewoods Suites in Wilmington.
Johanna Reese, government relations director for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, started off the retreat by updating the commissioners on actions taken by the state General Assembly that will affect counties.
“Overall for counties it was a good session,” Reese said, referring to the General Assembly’s long session last year. “Tax reform was our biggest success. Lottery funding was our biggest disappointment.”
Reese said that the association’s top priority this year will be to get more funding from lottery proceeds to go toward school construction. For the past several years, she said, only 21 to 22 percent, about $100 million annually, has been allocated from lottery funds to the counties for construction. While the original lottery bill specified that 40 percent of lottery money after expenses was to go to schools for construction, the money has been used for other purposes.
“The counties understand that there has been a recession, but we want to get it gradually back to the 40 percent that was to be allocated to the schools for construction out of lottery revenue,” Reese said. “… That would mean an additional $190 million in one year.”
Following Reese, the commissioners heard presentations from five county department heads — Steve Edge, Solid Waste director; Al Grimsley, Public Works director; Cindy Lowry, tax administrator; Becky Morrow, Social Services director; and Greg Cummings, economic developer.
Edge told the commissioners that electric generated at the county landfill in 2013 brought in slightly less revenue than the year before, about $502,000 compared with $536,000 in 2012. The reason for less revenue, he said, is increased maintenance to remove siloxane, a gritty substance found in methane, from the generator’s engine. He proposed that the county consider purchasing a siloxane filtering system that would cost about $375,000.
“On the average, we lose $50,000 to $60,000 in down time each year,” he said.
Edge also suggested that the county can save money by installing a leachate filtering system at a cost of $800,000.
Currently leachate is collected and disposed of at the wastewater treatment facility in Lumberton. The county has spent $1.6 million over the past five years to use this system of disposal, Edge said.
Morrow updated the commissioners on the most recent problems that her department is having with N.C. FAST, the state’s new computer system that is supposed to improve how food stamp and Medicaid services are delivered.
Morrow said her staff has been working long hours to get cases of food stamps and Medicaid into the system. Employees, she said, even worked last weekend.
“Since July through December we have had 2,400 hours of staff overtime,” Morrow said. “…. N.C. FAST it is supposed to cut down on staff and processing time. We don’t find that.”
Morrow thanked the commissioners for their help in funding her department’s food voucher program, which provides help to people whose food stamps are delayed by glitches in the new system.
“There have been 105 families helped with vouchers that have not received their food benefits for two months,” she said.
Lowry updated commissioners on tax issues, including collection rates and plans for the 2018 property revaluation.
According to Lowry, the county’s total collection rate as of Jan. 31 was 79.77 percent, slightly higher than the 79.29 percent on Jan. 31, 2013. That total does not include about $1.6 million collected by the new Tag and Tax System implemented by the state Department of Motor Vehicle.
Lowry for the third straight year asked the commissioners to put in the county budget money to replace her office’s phone system. Customer service, she said, is a priority.
“Our telephone system in its current state has failed our citizens,” she said.
In other business:
— Grimsley told the commissioners that about $1.3 million will be spent this year for upgrades to the county’s water system. This includes water main, hydrant, valves and service expenses.
He also said about $3.5 million to $4.4 million will be spent to expand the Lumber Bridge water treatment plant. The expansion will increase the plant’s daily treatment capacity from 6 million to 9 million gallons, he said.
— Cummings told the commissioners that in 2013, new and expanded businesses made a total investment of $41.4 million in Robeson County, and 454 jobs were created. He said that he expects this year for there to be another five new businesses locating or expanding in the county.