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Dial Back Nutrients, Stormwater Rules, DEQ Tells Legislators

In a series of presentations to the legislature's top environment panel, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Assistant Secretary for the Environment Tom Reeder presented data Wednesday intended to show the ineffectiveness of several state nutrients and stormwater programs, then suggested that legislators consider dialing back those rules. Throughout multiple presentations Wednesday, Reeder highlighted the costs placed on private property owners to comply with the state's post-construction stormwater, buffer, and nutrient rules. In a separate presentation, a local government water quality coalition in the upper Neuse river basin spotlighted the millions of dollars now being spent by local governments to monitor lake water quality, do additional water quality modeling, and determine the most efficient way to comply with an estimated $1 billion state mandate.

Reeder strongly hinted that the legislature should repeal these rules, many of which are an integral part of meeting federal obligations to clean up impaired waters such as Jordan Lake and Falls Lake. If the state does not implement adequate water pollution control measures in these water bodies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may enforce its own regulations in these areas. Reeder dismissed this possibility for North Carolina, asking the committee, "What could the EPA do, anyway, because it's not working anywhere?" (Read more about Reeder's comments in this WRAL-TV article.) His statements followed months of back-and-forth between DEQ and EPA, part of which involved a threat by EPA to take over North Carolina's delegated air and water quality programs.

Millions of North Carolinians depend on water drawn from or flowing downstream from Jordan Lake and Falls Lake. Due to the obligation cities have to provide clean drinking water as well as to reduce pollution to those reservoirs, the League prioritized flexible water body impairment solutions as its top regulatory goal. The League members will continue to work with legislators and regulators in responding to the DEQ reform suggestions. Contact: Erin Wynia


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Second Committee Examines Economic Development Tiers

The ongoing legislative discussion about how to best measure levels of economic distress in North Carolina continued Monday as a second study committee made plans Monday to explore alternatives  to the current system. The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Division Oversight Committee (PED) formed a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington to examine ways to replace the current three-tier evaluation system. In making subcommittee appointments, PED Chair Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord encouraged the group to coordinate efforts with the Joint Legislative Economic Development and Global Engagement Committee (EDGE), which is also exploring the issue.

All legislators on the PED subcommittee are also members of the EDGE committee. Hartsell also noted that a draft bill circulated to PED members Monday would merely serve as a starting point for the discussion. Unlike the index idea under consideration by the EDGE Committee, the PED draft did not include specifics regarding a replacement for the current economic tier system. The state currently uses the tier system's rankings when deciding how to fund applications to its CDBG, Industrial Development Fund, Economic Infrastructure, and Building Reuse programs. Municipalities submit project applications to all of these funding programs. Both legislative committees will likely vote on proposed draft legislation in April, which would then be eligible for consideration in the upcoming legislative short session. The PED subcommittee scheduled its first meeting for February 25. Contact: Erin Wynia


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NCLM Testimony Explores Provision of Solid Waste Services

In providing a core local government function of solid waste services, cities and towns contract with private providers a significant percentage of the time, League staff told legislators Wednesday. In testimony before a legislative working group examining the efficiency and effectiveness of how the public and private sectors provide solid waste services, League Legislative Counsel Erin Wynia and Winston-Salem/Forsyth Utilities Director Ron Hargrove described the processes cities and towns follow when evaluating whether to use public employees or private contractors for services such as trash and recycling collection, or disposal of solid waste. Using data collected by the state, the League determined that municipalities use their own labor to collect solid waste 28 percent of the time statewide. The percentage of cities and towns utilizing their own workforces for solid waste collection decreases to 22 percent for towns under 10,000 in population.

The League's presentation also detailed efforts local programs make to maximize limited public resources. Specifically, Hargrove discussed Winston-Salem's continuous efforts to conserve landfill space, including use of technologies such as tarp covers and GPS tracking for compacting equipment. Following up on the issue of future landfill space, working group chair Sen. Trudy Wade of Greensboro asked state agency staff multiple questions about their prediction of 29.5 years of future landfill capacity. The ensuing discussion pointed out factors that inflated the state's estimate. Sen. Wade expressed concerns over the accuracy of the state's estimate, while working group co-chair Rep. Jimmy Dixon noted that the state needed adequate landfill capacity, but local opposition could often hinder such projects.

The working group also heard from other public- and private-sector representatives. A representative from the private firm Waste Industries presented five ideas for possible legislation, including more state incentives for the private solid waste industry and a reduction of local government funding authority for solid waste disposal. The League thanks Sen. Wade and Rep. Dixon for the opportunity to present, and will continue its involvement in this interim working group, which may suggest possible legislation for consideration in the upcoming legislative short session. We also  thank Hargrove and Winston-Salem/Forsyth Utilities for their involvement on this important issue. Contact: Erin Wynia


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Legislators Continue Look at Police Body-Worn Cameras

A legislative study subcommittee examining police body-worn cameras was cautioned this week about proposals regarding retention of the video that could increase police and sheriff department budgets. The subcommittee of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety is examining whether and how the camera footage should be brought under the state's public records law umbrella. The subcommittee plans to meet two more times before deciding whether to propose legislation for the upcoming session.

At Wednesday's meeting, several local law enforcement officials spoke about the value of the cameras. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Maj. Stephen Willis told subcommittee members that larger police departments can accumulate huge amounts of video and  storing it can be very expensive. While Henderson County Sheriff Charles McDonald urged legislators not to adopt any statewide rules on their use -- particularly any mandates that they be required -- some local law enforcement agencies and municipal governing boards have been seeking some state guidance and an updating of public records laws to reflect the realities of the new technology. Rep. John Faircloth of High Point, chair of the subcommittee, indicated that he believes a new legislative proposal could come from the discussions.

Four separate bills were filed last year in the General Assembly addressing police body-worn cameras, including one that would have mandated that most law enforcement officers in the state wear them during many interactions with the public. Legislators also last year created a matching grant program to help equip law enforcement agencies with the cameras. Read League coverage about that program here. The League's Department of Risk Management Services also has been very active in advising police departments about issues arising from body-worn camera programs. Contact: Sarah Collins


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Superintendent's Retirement Puts Focus on Pension Spiking Law

The state's anti-pension spiking law, adopted in 2014 with League support, came under the public spotlight this week after Johnston County school officials indicated they may challenge the law in court. That potential challenge comes after the county's schools superintendent, who is retiring at 50, was caught under its provisions after the board converted $44,000 in annual benefits to salary, increasing his pension benefits.

Because converting the benefits triggered the law's sanctions, Johnston County taxpayers, rather than the state pension fund, are on the hook for $520,000 of the superintendent's retirement benefits. The League, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and State Treasurer Janet Cowell all supported the legislation in 2014 in an effort to reduce the impact of significant, late-career salary spikes on the state and local government retirements systems and bring further financial stability to the pension funds. Read media coverage about the Johnston County situation here. Read League coverage about the passage of the anti-pension spiking law here.


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Legislator Predicts Short Short Session

Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville predicts the upcoming legislative session will be "short, short, short," saying House and Senate leaders are telling legislators not to bring up controversial legislation. Representative McGrady's comments came during a meeting of the Land of Sky Regional Council. He told the group that budget adjustments and addressing any emergency situations would be the focus of the legislative session. Read more about McGrady's comments here.  
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Congressional District Ruling Weighs on Primary Schedule

A federal court ruling that two of the state's congressional districts are unconstitutionally drawn continues to raise questions about the effects on the state's primary elections scheduled for March 15. The state has asked U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to set aside the ruling to allow congressional primaries to be held as scheduled. The lower court ordered the districts to be redrawn immediately, also raising the possibility of a special legislative session to do so. Roberts did not immediately rule on the state's request, but gave the plaintiffs who are challenging the constitutionality of the districts until Tuesday to respond. Read media coverage about the case and its potential effects on the upcoming primary elections here and here.