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LeagueLINC Spotlight: Sen. Jeff Tarte

Throughout the interim between legislative sessions, the League is periodically featuring leaders from around the state who play a significant role in municipal and legislative affairs. Our first Spotlight featured Senator Trudy Wade. This week, the League sits down with Senator Jeff Tarte, who previously served as mayor for the Town of Cornelius.

When Jeff Tarte was first elected mayor of the Town of Cornelius in 2007, he asked his friend, Thom Tillis, to swear him into office. Tillis – a former town commissioner in Cornelius who Tarte had originally gotten to know through the area’s youth sports leagues – had been elected to the N.C. House of Representatives the year before.

After Tarte finished the oath of office, he made what would turn out to be a prophetic statement.

“I turned to the audience – TVs, papers, everybody, a full house,” Tarte recalled, “and I said, ‘I’d like to thank the future Speaker of the House of Representatives for swearing me in.’ ”

Tillis, of course, did go on to become Speaker of the House in 2011, a title he still holds as he runs for the U.S. Senate. And Tarte now serves alongside him in the halls of the General Assembly, having been elected as the Senator for District 41 in Mecklenburg County in 2012.

That election was Tarte’s first foray into statewide office, but he is not short on political experience. His father served on both the town and county boards in Tarte’s hometown of Urbana, Ill., and his great uncles were mayors of towns in South Carolina. Tarte remembers being about 8 years old and going door to door passing out campaign materials for Barry Goldwater with his dad. He also served as an intern on Capitol Hill for his hometown Congressman and at the gubernatorial level.

But before embarking on his own run for elected office, Tarte entered the private sector. He worked at both IBM and Ernst & Young before starting his own management consulting company. He stayed active in his community, serving in such roles as the Chair of the town Parks and Rec Advisory Board and as a commissioner on the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec Commission, and once he semi-retired from his business, he thought the time was right to run for mayor.

“It was just a natural progression for me,” Tarte said. “I was very involved in the classic committees and civic responsibilities. It’s a way to be in the middle of everything that’s going on and try to influence decisions and directions and priorities. The mayor gives you that bully pulpit at a very local level closest to the constituents and neighbors.”

Tarte would be re-elected mayor in 2009 and 2011, serving during the depths of the national recession. But Cornelius weathered the economic storm better than most. Tarte cites as key achievements during his time as mayor the building of a new animal shelter and new fire station, the widening of the town’s main thoroughfare, the strengthening of the town police force, and being able to up Cornelius’ bond rating to Aaa status while increasing the size of the town’s fund balance.

“And probably besides those functions what I’m most proud of is we lowered the tax rate every single year,” Tarte said. “Really it was all about prioritization. Let’s focus on the big things, things we can get done, things that are critical services to the community, and let’s not break the bank while we do it.”

Tarte brought that pragmatic, customer- and client-focused approach that he first honed in the private sector to the General Assembly for the 2013 session. Though he knew what he was getting into, he admits to being surprised by the sheer volume of work required during the session, to go along with navigating the ins and outs of being a freshman Senator.

But he still managed to achieve some legislative success. Most notably, Tarte was one of the driving forces behind Senate Bill 159, which requires Mecklenburg County to redo its property revaluation following a 2011 process that many property owners felt overvalued their property and left them with unfairly high tax bills. Tarte is proud of the fact that all of the involved stakeholders came together to discuss the legislation he sponsored before it was unanimously approved by both chambers of the General Assembly. 

Spotlight on Senator Jeff Tarte

“It’s a huge thing because it’s millions and millions of dollars we’ll return to the taxpayers that was taken inappropriately in a very flawed process,” Tarte said.

It’s probably not a surprise that one of Tarte’s major achievements from his first session dealt with local governments and their citizens, as he said one of his stated goals has consistently been to bring his experience as a mayor to his role as a state Senator.

“I would say that one of the things that I’ve always said, my two core constituencies early on were going to be the businesses – (since I’m) coming from the business aspect – and the municipalities,” Tarte said. “I really wanted to be a voice that one size does not fit all. Raleigh does not necessarily know what’s best and what should be happening at a local municipal or county level.”

That said, Tarte also cautions those who are still in locally elected office that the principle of Dillon’s Rule – that municipalities are creatures of the state with only the authority granted to them by the legislature – is paramount to him and many of his colleagues in the General Assembly.

“Where a conservative legislature like what we’ve got right now impacts it is there’s a perception maybe that we’re stepping on the municipalities’ responsibility,” Tarte said. “But what I would tell you is, it would be my perception from talking to other legislators, particularly those in the leadership roles from the conservative (side), it’s when a town or county is perceived as stepping beyond its responsibility and authority that they were granted and are usurping things, that’s when the legislature will tend to step in and rein that back in.”

As with most every venture he’s been involved in, whether it was the private sector or his civic activities or his time as mayor, Tarte says that relationship-building is the key to municipal officials successfully engaging with their legislators. Building that relationship early before issues arise at the General Assembly is crucial to cities’ and towns’ ability to impact legislative matters.

“Spend time, to come visit, or when your elected official is in the district,” Tarte said. “Those are good things to do. Spend quality time, grab a lunch, grab a meeting, and don’t wait until the last minute when you need something.”

Tarte announced this week that he would seek reelection for his Senate seat in November. His announcement cited endorsements from 102 elected officials, including all of his fellow Republican state Senators, Governor Pat McCrory, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, and a number of locally elected officials. The campaign will kick off next month with an event featuring Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger.

It’s clear Tarte has made a smooth transition from mayor to Senator, and to hear him tell it, that’s not a coincidence.

“I would love to think it’s a natural progression to go from municipal to state,” Tarte said. “I actually would say it’s the best way to come here. You can come here with no experience, but I’m not sure that’s healthy for the towns or the constituents. I think there’s a natural progression. It’s sort of like working your way through the minors before you go to the Big Show. I think serving on local committees and boards, then running for your town board, maybe serving as mayor, then coming – it’s a good progression to be able to do that, to be better equipped to be effective sooner. You hit the ground running, if you will.”

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Sens. Goolsby, Walters Will Not Run for Re-Election

Two sitting N.C. Senators announced this week that they would not run again. Sen. Thom Goolsby, who currently represents New Hanover County in Senate District 9, announced today that he would not seek re-election. In a statement, Goolsby said, "My wife and I are blessed with two wonderful young daughters and they need me at home more often than service in the Senate allows. For this reason, I will focus on my family and law practice and not seek re-election this year." Goolsby was first elected in 2010. Meanwhile, Sen. Michael Walters, who represents Senate District 13, also announced that he would not pursue re-election. According to The Robesonian, in a statement, Walters said, "This was a difficult decisions as I have sincerely enjoyed representing the citizens of Robeson, Columbus, and Hoke counties and fighting for the legislation that is important to them. I value the friendships I have made during this time, and have the greatest respect for the dreams and aspirations of my fellow citizens." Walters was originally appointed to his seat in 2009 before winning re-election in 2010 and 2012. The League wishes both Sen. Goolsby and Sen. Walters all the best in their future endeavors.
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911 Board to Consider Secondary PSAP Funding Proposal

On Friday, Jan. 24, the North Carolina 911 Board will consider a Secondary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) funding proposal from its Secondary PSAP Funding Committee. The Committee's recommendation outlines conditions under which 911 Fund disbursements to Secondary PSAPs may be permitted through Primary PSAPs going forward. In addition to meeting the 8 conditions prescribed by the Committee, the funding allocations would also need to be approved by the 911 Board under the new policy. If the Committee's recommendations are adopted, the new recommendation will go into effect on July 1, 2014. The full funding recommendation can be viewed here. If you would like to provide input regarding the Committee's recommendation, the 911 Board will be accepting public comment at the meeting from any individual who has registered in advance to speak. To register, contact Richard Taylor by email or by phone at (919) 754-2942 no later than Wednesday, Jan. 22. The Board is also accepting written comments which can be filed by emailing here any time between now and the Jan. 24 meeting.
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Opportunity to Comment on DENR CDBG Action Plan Amendment

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has released a draft amendment to its Community Development Block Grant action plan that details how DENR will administer CDBG infrastucture dollars that were allocated to it by the General Assembly. The action plan amendment can be viewed here. Public comment on the amendment is open now. The vast majority of municipalities in the state are eligible to access these funds for infrastructure projects, so if you are interested please review the amendment and let DENR know of any feedback that you have by Feb. 2. Comments and any questions can be directed via email to State and CDBG-Infrastructure Grants Program Supervisor Julie Cubeta.
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Welcome New League Intern Kenneth Strickland

We at the League's Government Affairs team are excited to have Kenneth Strickland with us as a legal intern this semester. Kenneth is in his second year of law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after graduating first in his class from Campbell University. He brings to the team experience with the UNC Law Pro Bono Program and the Office of the Federal Public Defender and will be assisting members of the team with legal research and legislative monitoring, among other items. Please join us in welcoming Kenneth.

League Intern Kenneth Strickland

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League Water Quality Standards Comments Seek Implementation Changes for Permits

In comments submitted on the state's water quality standards during a public comment period ending January 3, the League sought changes to the way state regulators implement those standards in wastewater discharge permits. The comments came as part of the state's long-running "triennial review," a process mandated by the federal Clean Water Act that directs states to review their surface water quality standards every three years. A highly technical scientific process, the review accounts for updated toxicological studies and other research regarding aquatic health in surface waters. In this most recent review, North Carolina proposed changes to certain metals standards such as cadmium, chromium, nickel, silver, and zinc, as well as other measured parameters such as chlorophyll-a.

The League membership selected the triennial review as one of its top regulatory goals because of the impacts the standards have on wastewater treatment costs. The League has been deeply involved in this effort since it began in 2009 and will continue to advocate for changed implementation policies throughout the upcoming triennial review rulemaking process. Read more about past League member efforts in "Triennial Review Becomes Part of 'Review of Rules'" (November 2013 EcoLINC) and "Triennial Review Action to Pick Up in New Year" (November 2012 EcoLINC).

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Free Trial Membership in League's New Stormwater Affiliate

Stormwater program employees across the state may now join the Storm Water Association of North Carolina (SWANC) for a free trial period. The League and SWANC became affiliate organizations last fall. Formed by a group of stormwater managers from across the state, SWANC is the preeminent statewide organization to advocate for the interests of stormwater programs at the N.C. General Assembly and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Membership is open to N.C. municipalities and others. As the leading voice for stormwater interests before state-level decision-makers, SWANC has already influenced stormwater discussions by testifying before legislative committees, contributing comments on stormwater regulatory issues, and participating on state stormwater workgroups. Members also gain from the opportunity for peer-to-peer exchange of information. 

Any member may attend the next SWANC meeting on January 27, 2014, at the Kernodle Center on 1535 South Mebane Street, Burlington, NC 27215, from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm. The meeting will feature speaker Tracy Davis, Director of the Division of Energy, Minerals, and Land Resources (and the new home to the state’s stormwater permitting unit). RSVP your attendance by Friday, January 17, 2014 by sending an email to

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State Regulators Pass Rule to Define 'Gravel'

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC), the state's top environmental rulemaking body, approved a temporary rule yesterday that would add a definition of "gravel" to state rules and address concerns over excess stormwater runoff from gravel-covered surfaces. This new rule clarified a provision in HB 74 Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which excluded gravel from the definition of "built-upon area." This legislative redefinition ignored scientific reality of how gravel surfaces easily become compacted with foot and vehicle travel. Once compacted, the surfaces do not allow infiltration of water, thereby increasing runoff into the state's waters. Practically, then, most gravel surfaces function the same as "built-upon areas" with buildings and other impervious structures on them.

League members, who are held accountable for water quality impacts of runoff coming from impervious surfaces, supported the EMC's temporary rule. The new rule distinguished between the types of rock and stone materials that become impervious with use -- such as those materials used in parking lots and roads -- and the types of gravel that do not become impervious over time, such as those materials used for landscaping or solar farms. Read more about the positive results of this rule in "Regulators to Settle Gravel Issue with Temporary Rulemaking" (November 2013 EcoLINC). The temporary rule would become effective -- perhaps as early as March -- after completing the remaining administrative procedures, including a brief public comment period.

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Local Governments Respond to Legislative Study in Plan Review Report

The League, along with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and several state agencies, submitted a report and recommendations this week in response to a legislative study on the technical review of engineering plans. A provision in last session's regulatory reform bill required the report, which will serve as a starting point for an interim legislative study on how state agencies and local governments treat engineering plans that come to them for approval. The broadly-written provision would apply to many different types of plan reviews, including those of stormwater, sedimentation/erosion control, water/wastewater system, and transportation designs. State agencies and local governments have expressed concerns about additional restrictions on their ability to review these plans, especially if the restrictions slow down the review and permitting process. The report recommended procedures to increase transparency and streamline plan review.