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Legislators Introduce Protest Petition Reform Bills

House and Senate members filed differing protest petition bills this week, both of which seek to reform the current law. State law now allows certain property owners to submit a petition in protest of a proposed zoning map amendment. Upon receipt of a complete (or "qualified") petition, a council's vote on the amendment must be a supermajority vote of three-fourths in favor of the rezoning in order for the motion to pass. The tool, first included in N.C. statutes in 1923 before modern means of citizen input such as planning commissions, requires either 20 percent of property owners within the area of the proposed rezoning, or 5 percent of neighboring property owners, to sign the petition in order for the petition to be qualified. League members support reforms to this law that would increase the required property owner participation levels needed for a successful protest petition and would lower the supermajority vote requirement.

The most dramatic of the two introduced reform bills, HB 201 Zoning Changes/Citizen Input, would repeal the existing protest petition process described above. Instead, the "citizen input" device referenced in the bill's title would merely become an obligation for a municipal clerk to transmit any written communications received regarding the proposed rezoning to the elected board, presuming the clerk received those communications two days prior to the vote. Citizens may already send written communications to any elected official without this proposed change. In addition, this bill would change the law for tallying board members' votes, although only for situations involving zoning ordinance changes. Instead of counting unexcused votes as affirmative votes, as current law proscribes, this bill would allow council members to skip these types of votes for any reason without the penalty of having their vote counted as affirmative. This bill now awaits calendaring in the House Committee on Local Government.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate protest petition reform bill, SB 285 Zoning/Protest Petition Changes, would keep the current protest petition tool in place but would change key requirements to make it more difficult for (1) protest petitions to be qualified, and (2) the rezoning to be approved by the governing board. First, the bill would raise the needed percentage of protesting neighboring property owners from 5 percent to 15 percent. Then, it would lower the supermajority vote required in cases of a qualified protest petition from three-fourths to two-thirds. Contact: Erin Wynia


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Jobs Recruiting Bill Slows Down in the Senate

A key jobs recruiting bill, backed by the League and already passed by the House, may see some slow-going in the Senate. WRAL-TV in Raleigh reports that Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville has indicated that the extent of the legislation may present problems for rank-and-file members of that chamber's majority party. Senator Apodaca told the TV station that to say the HB 117 NC Competes Act pushes the limit of what his caucus may accept "is an understatement." 

The bill would double an existing cap on funding for the state's key jobs recruitment program, the Jobs Development Investment Grant program. It also would restore money for an infrastructure grant program. Those measures would support a League goal of providing for state-level incentive programs necessary to keep North Carolina competitive when it comes to bringing jobs and industry to local communities. Read previous League coverage about the proposal here. Contact: Rose Williams


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Proposal Eliminates Sunset on Special Assessment Authority for Infrastructure

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell introduced a measure yesterday endorsed by the League membership that would eliminate a July 1 sunset on the authority now granted to local governments to utilize special assessments as a way to pay for infrastructure for new developments. Currently, local governments use this tool, called "special assessment authority," as a way to raise revenue to pay for infrastructure such as roads, curb and gutter, sidewalks, and water and sewer extensions in areas of new development. Property owners and developers must request that the local government impose the special assessment on their property, making the use of this tool voluntary at the property owner's request. In return, local governments use the proceeds of the special assessment to repay any revenue bonds they issued to pay for the requested infrastructure. (Read more details about how this authority works here.) Most recently, the Town of Hillsborough used this authority to fund infrastructure improvements for a 330-acre private development that now includes 139 single-family homes, 119 townhomes, 270 apartment homes, a community college satellite campus, a daycare, and a satellite UNC Hospitals campus. Contact: Erin Wynia
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Join Us Next Wednesday for Town Hall Day

We hope to see you next Wednesday, March 18, for Town Hall Day. Join us in the morning, either at 9 a.m. or 10:15 a.m., for an issues briefing and then go visit your legislators. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger will meet with us in the Legislative Auditorium beginning at 1 p.m., and Gov. Pat McCrory and top officials from his administration will take part in a panel discussion at 4:30 p.m., with a Legislative Reception to follow at 5:30 p.m.

Town Hall Day is a great opportunity for representatives of North Carolina towns and cities to visit legislators and make municipalities' priorities known to them. Because the agricultural community is also using this day as a lobby day, it is critical to make appointments now with members of your legislative delegation. Also, don't forget to wear your League green ties and scarves. Pre-registration has closed, but you can still register on-site the day of the event. Please come join us on Town Hall Day!

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Gas Tax Compromise Not Yet Reached; Bill Would Replace Tax with Fee

Last week, following strong support and outreach from League members and staff, the House passed its version of SB 20 IRC Update/Motor Fuel Tax Changes. The League supported both the House and Senate's efforts to stabilize gas tax revenues and protect the state's transportation funding. Both the House and Senate have appointed conferees to work on a compromise bill between the two chambers, but as of this writing no such agreement had been announced.

In the meantime, legislators have filed a bill -- HB 203 Phaseout of Fuel Tax -- to replace the gas tax with a flat fee of $201 per vehicle. The gas tax is the sole source of municipal Powell Bill funds and, while the bill instructs the Codifier of Statutes to correct cross references and make conforming changes, it does not explicitly mention Powell Bill funds. Rep. Charles Jeter, one of the bill's sponsors, confirmed to the League that the legislation was not intended to affect Powell Bill funds and indicated he was willing to amend his bill to this effect if necessary. Contact: Chris Nida


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League Members Hear from Federal Officials at NLC Conference

Over 130 North Carolina city and town officials attended the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference in Washington D.C. this week. During the first week of beautiful weather seen in the Capitol city in some time, League members heard from President Obama, enjoyed getting to know and becoming reacquainted with others from cities and towns across the country, and lobbied on Capitol Hill.  Members spoke with the NC Congressional delegation to lobby for long-term transportation funding, to level the playing field between hometown retailers and online sellers through the Marketplace Fairness Act filed this week, and encouraged members of Congress to protect the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds.

All of the lobbying and learning was good, but it was especially nice to gather and relax Monday night with the North Carolina delegation reception at Open City in D.C. During the conference, League Executive Director Paul Meyer, chosen to be one of 17 city officials in the nation to serve on the 2016 Presidential Task Force, met with others on the Task Force with the goal of raising the visibility of city issues during the Presidential cycle.

The N.C. League, through Grassroots Coordinator Vickie Miller, arranged for two special meetings for North Carolina members during the D.C. trip.  One meeting was hosted at the Appalachian Regional Commission office and one at the HUD office, with HUD officials specifically chosen to discuss CDBG Funding targeting, the timeliness expenditure requirement and CDBG economic development uses with North Carolina representatives.

Members also heard from other executive branch officials. The conference concluded with Capitol Hill briefings including one on the critical importance of passing a long-term transportation bill that ensures local governments have control over decision-making in their communities.

The conference was a terrific experience shared by representatives of League member cities and towns. Contact: Rose Williams


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Senate Debuts League-Supported Electronic Notice Bill

Two former city elected officials introduced SB 210 Notice Publication by Counties and Cities yesterday. The League commends the three primary sponsors of this bill: former Greensboro Council Member Sen. Trudy Wade, former Cornelius Mayor Sen. Jeff Tarte, and Sen. Andrew Brock. The proposal, which would apply to all local governments statewide, fulfills a policy goal of the League membership to allow local cities and towns the ability to satisfy written public notice requirements by publication of the notice electronically in lieu of newspaper publication. Typically, a local government using this method of notice would use its own website for the notice rather than paying for print newspaper publication. Introduction of this bill comes on the heels of a fierce debate on similar measures in the last legislative biennium. In 2013, various versions of a local government-supported proposal passed the Senate, although the only version approved by House members was amended to remove electronic notice authority for local governments and to redirect the legislation toward listing responsibilities of the press for electronic publication. That amended measure, similar to press-promoted bills filed in both chambers last week, failed to pass the legislature in 2013. Still, the Senate tried once more to pass a local government-backed electronic notice measure last year, but the House did not agree to the provision. Contact: Erin Wynia
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State Regulators Approve IBT Certificate Modification

The N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC) took action Thursday approving Cary, Apex, Morrisville and Wake County's proposed interbasin transfer (IBT) certificate modification. This action was the first opportunity for the EMC to make findings based on criteria established in S.L. 2013-388, which spells out the process for such modifications.
 
An IBT occurs when water is transferred from one river basin to another. Municipalities often initiate IBTs by, for example, withdrawing drinking water from one basin and discharging it as wastewater into another basin. The certificate modification approval increased the amount of withdraws from the Haw River Basin to 33 million gallons/day (MGD) -- of which 31 MGD will be returned to the Neuse River Basin. The increase was requested to ensure drinking water supply for estimated population growth to the area. Read more coverage in the News and Observer. Contact: Sarah Collins

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FCC Issues Formal Order in Wilson Broadband Case

Two weeks after its initial ruling, the Federal Communications Commission has issued a formal order in the City of Wilson broadband case that would appear to apply not only to that city but throughout the state. The order pre-empts major portions of a 2011 state law that restricted the expansion of municipal-owned broadband. The 183-page order states that the North Carolina law creates a barrier to infrastructure investment and hampers competition in the broadband market. The order also cites League public comments submitted on behalf of Wilson, including those that point out that residents who live in areas that have not attracted private Internet providers nonetheless need this crucial infrastructure. 

The order is expected to draw court challenges, which could mean that its effects are not felt for some time. Read the formal order here. Read previous League coverage here.


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Elon Poll Finds More Trust in Local Government

The latest Elon University Poll finds that North Carolinians have a much stronger trust in local government than they do state and federal government. The poll, released Thursday, showed that 53 percent of North Carolinians trust local government to do "what is right" just about always or most of the time, compared to 32 percent for state government and 22 percent for the federal government. The poll also found that that trust in local government is bipartisan, as opposed to partisan splits found when it comes to trust in state and federal government. 

Another finding from the poll: nine out of 10 respondents support the idea of police officers wearing body cameras. The Elon University Poll surveyed 867 North Carolinians in late February and reported a margin of error of 3.33 percent. Read more about the poll and see the full results here.


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Bipartisan Marketplace Fairness Act Again Filed in US Senate

A bipartisan bill has again been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would help facilitate states to collect online sales taxes. The Senate approved a similar version of the Marketplace Fairness Act in 2013, but the U.S. House failed to consider the bill. The prospects in the House may be no better this year. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia is working on his own proposal, but proponents of federal legislation that would help states with online sales tax collections question whether his plan would accomplish that purpose.

League members, in December, adopted a goal of supporting federal legislation that would allow municipalities to receive the sales taxes that they are owed from online purchases. Last year, the League joined with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and N.C. Retail Merchants Association in jointly lobbying Congress for the passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act. The three groups penned this op-ed which appeared in The Charlotte Observer as the push of passage of the law occurred just before the last Congress adjourned. Read more about the latest bill here. Contact: Chris Nida


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Greensboro Council Changes Move Through Senate

The Senate has approved legislation restructuring the Greensboro City Council despite the opposition of Mayor Nancy Vaughan and others who spoke against the measure before a Senate committee. SB 36 Greensboro City Council Changes would reduce the number of council members, change the mayor's powers, and eliminate at-large seats. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. Meanwhile, a bill filed by House Democrats would allow changes in the structure of locally-elected boards only if local voters approved that change. HB 179 Form of Govt. Changes by Referendum Only would ask state voters to put the requirement in the state constitution.


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Historic Preservation Companion Bill Filed in the Senate

A companion bill to House legislation establishing a new historic preservation tax credit has been filed in the Senate. SB 287 New Historic Preservation Tax Credit was filed Thursday and is sponsored by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord. Like HB 152 filed last week, it would create an historic preservation tax credit of 10 to 20 percent of renovation expenses, depending on the size of the renovation project and where it occurred.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat McCrory joined Secretary of Cultural Resources Susan Kluttz in Mount Airy on a stop on her tour to promote this legislation. The League would like to thank Governor McCrory, Secretary Kluttz, all of the bill sponsors of the legislation to restore the tax credits, and all the municipal officials who have so generously helped out with this effort. As stated in earlier League coverage, these efforts are having a positive effect and expanding the support for historic preservation tax credits. Contact: Scott Mooneyham


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State Revenue Picture Improves

The latest estimates from the General Assembly's Fiscal Research Division show the state revenue picture improving somewhat in February. State General Fund revenue is now $158.6 million below projections, which represents an improvement from a month earlier when it was $271 million below targeted amounts, the N.C. Insider state government news service reports. The figures still paint a very incomplete picture. Revenue numbers from March and April, when most individuals file their income tax returns, will be the most important in determining whether or not the state faces a revenue shortfall and how extensive that shortfall may be.
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Bill Would Repeal Map Act

Legislation filed this week would repeal the state Map Act, which had in some cases allowed state and local government to designate private property as a road corridor for long periods of time while imposing development restrictions on the owners. HB 183 Repeal Map Act was filed in the aftermath of a state Court of Appeals decision that ordered the state Department of Transportation to compensate a group of property owners in Forsyth County whose land faced development restrictions for years after the DOT identified it as being in a road corridor plan. The ruling and legislation could have implications for municipalities, but the situation that was the subject of the court case typically has been associated with state corridor plans.  Read earlier League coverage here.


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Cornelius Assistant Manager Reappointed to 911 Board

Andrew Grant, assistant town manager for Cornelius, has been reappointed by Gov. Pat McCrory to the North Carolina 911 Board. The appointment is for a term of four years. The 911 board administers the State 911 Fund, helps develop the state 911 Plan and sets policies related to the fund's operation. The League congratulates Mr. Grant on the appointment.