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League Bulletin

February 16, 2018

​The General Assembly this week rested its gavels, having adjourned with no plans to return before the short-session in May. Legislators left Raleigh on Tuesday after sending the governor a single bill dealing with school class-size, changes regarding the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, and a fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Other bills in circulation, like the GenX-driven water safety concern, went without a final vote. While the Associated Press notes that court decisions over legislation could bring lawmakers back to Raleigh in the interim, the regular short-session is scheduled to begin May 16 and could see new attention on matters unresolved from the 2017 long session, as well as budget amendments. Legislative work carries on, however, through various committees that will continue to meet in Raleigh.

​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

Cities across the U.S. are reacting to President Trump's infrastructure plan with hope that Congress will rise to the funding challenge collaboratively with them. The National League of Cities (NLC) this week applauded the White House's vision to improve American infrastructure, as it follows calls from state and local leaders to "rebuild and reimagine" it for the demands of a changing and competitive world. "With the release of this plan, the White House will hopefully start a domino effect in Washington for Congress to pull together a bipartisan bill that works with cities to rebuild America's infrastructure," said NLC CEO Clarence E. Anthony. "Congress must step up to join cities in the fight to repair our nation's crumbling infrastructure and build for 2050, instead of simply fixing 1950. Now is the right time for Congress to join us in rebuilding national networks and core infrastructure that delivers what Americans want -- great infrastructure that works for them and the economy."

Anthony's comments followed a gathering of mayors, including Charlotte's Mayor Vi Lyles, with President Trump in Washington, D.C. for the release of the infrastructure plan. The group, of seven mayors hailing from cities across the U.S., expressed the need for teamwork with cities. NLC has offered five operating principles to that end, and says resolving the American infrastructure quandary will require substantial added commitment from all levels of government. NLC said cities are already paying their fair share; a 2017 publication noted that 92 percent of cities reported increases in infrastructure costs. Its Rebuild With Us campaign is dedicated to strengthening the federal-local partnership with investments in infrastructure supporting transportation, water, workforce and broadband. News outlets including Route Fifty covered the conversation and how the release of the Trump plan has energized the broader dialogue over infrastructure needs. The publication noted that the plan seeks to combine $200 billion in federal money with state, local and private dollars to reach $1.5 trillion or more in infrastructure investment over a decade, but the extent of the state and local government role is unclear.

​President Trump on Monday unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 with what city leaders called a major disinvestment at the local level, with funding cut or eliminated for TIGER grants, Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other longstanding, important resources. “For the second year in a row, this administration has released a budget proposal that would seriously damage the well being of America's cities, towns and villages," said Little Rock Mayor and National League of Cities (NLC) President Mark Stodola. "Rather than honor Congress' bipartisan funding agreement, the White House has only offered a roadmap for disinvestment and disengagement with cities and local governments.” Just prior, Congress had approved the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which ran at odds to the president's proposal by including funding increases in areas that could help cities, like with the TIGER and CDBG funds. NLC notes that Congress did not accept the president's budget as proposed last year and that the elements of the bipartisan budget agreement may serve as another rejection. NLC's latest Federal Advocacy Update includes specifics from the budget as it relates to municipalities.

​U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr have announced that the recently approved federal budget provides more than $125 million in additional aid that may help North Carolina communities still hampered by 2016's Hurricane Matthew. The budget greenlights about $100 million in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds meant to help with needs like housing, infrastructure and business, the senators said. It also provides $25.5 million in additional Federal Highway Administration funds for roads damaged in the storm. Senators Tillis and Burr in a joint press release said the money is "critical" for eastern North Carolina's ongoing recovery. "The additional $125 million will go a long way in helping our local communities recover from the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew," said Senator Tillis. "We are grateful for Senate leaders and appropriators for recognizing that recovery efforts do not end when first responders leave and that a multi-year recovery process requires continued federal assistance."

Candidate filing began this week for county, regional, state and federal offices across North Carolina, with nearly 1,200 names in the hat by Friday morning. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement offers a downloadable, regularly updated list (PDF or CSV) of all filings. The Associated Press on Monday, when filing opened, noted that the filing period comes amid another court ruling over electoral districts. Judges denied a motion from groups seeking alterations to a number of state House districts. It effectively means "districts in those areas approved last summer by the GOP-controlled legislature are being used for primary and general elections this year," AP reports in a story with more about the many pending cases over elections in North Carolina. Filing ends for most seats at noon Feb. 28.