A legislative study committee on Monday began its examination of the financial and management practices of public water systems. When committee co-chair Rep. Chuck McGrady opened the meeting, he noted that the study originated from a situation with a local water-system in his Henderson County district, but added that the study had since grown to encompass other issues identified by state agencies, such as the Local Government Commission (LGC), a division of the State Treasurer's Office that oversees all local government finance issues. Information received by the committee reflected this wide range of topics, and included discussion of rate-setting authority, the condition of water lines and treatment facilities, service territory, state funding for water systems, and fiscal management practices. The League has worked in close coordination with Representative McGrady and the other committee co-chair, Sen. Paul Newton, and appreciates their invitation to give a presentation at the committee's March meeting. That presentation will include information on the League's new consulting services to help municipalities manage their water system finances. Meanwhile, legislators at the meeting this week posed questions to experts from the UNC School of Government, LGC, and State Water Infrastructure Authority. A point that LGC presenters stressed was that declines in both population and economic activity in many areas of the state placed strains on the fiscal health of smaller systems. Representative McGrady said the committee would likely recommend legislation for the 2019 long session, and that it would continue to meet throughout this year. Contact: Erin Wynia
Separate legislative committees on Thursday examined the responsibilities of local fire and building inspectors -- discussions that could lead to legislation in the upcoming short session. Local governments bear the primary responsibility to ensure the safety of buildings. They meet this responsibility through building inspections and permitting (of all buildings) during construction, and then fire safety inspections (of commercial and industrial buildings) after construction. Local fire inspectors received praise on Thursday from Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor during a presentation to an emergency management committee. Taylor discussed fire inspectors' role in ensuring the safety of commercial and industrial spaces. In light of this week's school shooting in Florida, legislators homed in on fire safety inspections of schools (discussed further in the next article of this newsletter). Taylor emphasized that all schools in the state were inspected annually by both a fire official and an electrical expert, and that inspectors certified their work to school superintendents for each inspection. During the ensuing discussion, legislators indicated an interest in boosting support of local fire officials in these public safety efforts, including ways to fund more personnel so that inspections could take place more frequently, tools for the public to report potential fire code violations, and standardized inspection forms.
Members of an interim House committee dedicated to building inspections received an update Thursday on the practices of certain local building inspections departments that had been singled out in a prior legislative meeting for requiring more inspections than allowed by law. During that update, legislators and homebuilders' representatives both acknowledged that practices in local inspections departments were changing for the better, and they thanked the League publicly for working to educate city officials about compliance. They also extended appreciation to the N.C. Department of Insurance for its recent efforts to support and educate local inspectors. However, the homebuilders' representatives also shared ongoing anecdotal examples of clashes between homebuilders and local inspectors. To some extent, both the presenters and legislators recognized that labor shortages in the construction industry lent to some of the tension. It's presented staffing challenges to local building inspection departments as well. Both inspectors and construction employees require similar backgrounds and training. Read the League's report on this committee's last meeting for more detail about possible legislation that the committee could recommend. Contact: Erin Wynia
With attention refocused on active shooter situations following this week's school shooting in Florida, North Carolina lawmakers used an already scheduled presentation on the topic Thursday to delve into the roles of local fire officials before and during these events. Ultimately, legislators indicated a desire to direct more resources -- such as upgraded technologies or more training opportunities -- to assist fire officials who respond to these incidents. Legislators' directives to boost fire responders came after they heard a presentation by Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor during Thursday's meeting of the Joint Emergency Management Oversight Committee. Taylor discussed the role of fire officials when coordinating with other first responders in active shooter situations. He said one of the main responsibilities for fire responders included sharing knowledge of building floor plans and exits. He also noted that local fire officials inspect all schools and commercial buildings throughout the state, in part to ensure that occupants in those buildings could still exit rooms during a lockdown. Taylor informed legislators that the National Fire Protection Association was expected to issue active shooter guidance by the end of the month, in another effort to assist in emergency response. Any legislative recommendations for more resources for fire officials would be included in the committee's final report in advance of the legislative short session in May. Peaceful resolutions or prevention of active shooter situations have been a focus for the League, whose Public Safety Risk Management Consultant Tom Anderson has led training classes with police officials around the state, as covered in the May/June 2016 issue of Southern City, the League's bimonthly magazine. Contact: Erin Wynia
Access to the high-speed broadband services needed for business, education, and health care remains a constant challenge in many parts of North Carolina. But, as legislators were informed on Thursday, accurately quantifying the true gaps in broadband service has been nearly impossible due to inaccurate data reported by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In hearing about the impacts of a lack of high-speed broadband access on telehealth efforts across the state, Rep. David Lewis reiterated that the FCC maps overstated the case, tagging many areas of the state as receiving high-speed broadband service where none actually existed. This overly rosy picture resulted from several factors, according to a representative from the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office (NCBIO). NCBIO explained that the FCC relies on reports from private wireless carriers regarding their service levels in census blocks. Because the FCC allows carriers to count the entire block as served even if only one parcel actually receives the service, NCBIO said the data indicated much wider broadband availability than actually exists. To determine the true level of broadband service across the state, NCBIO is now asking residents and businesses to report their service levels and lack of access to its N.C. Broadband Map. Contact: Erin Wynia