KFP: City officials concerned over proposed omnibus bill

by David Anderson

It’s a mouthful of a name: Proposed Senate Committee Substitute 156, or Kinston/Lenoir & Greene Counties Omnibus.

The bill is a potpourri of local initiatives Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, has been working to get passed in Raleigh.

Those proposals include a voter ID requirement for Greene and Lenoir County voters, a prohibition on Sunday voting in Greene and Lenoir Counties, a requirement that the city of Kinston cannot be divided into electoral districts until one “nonpartisan plurality” election has been held, and more.

The parts which concerned Kinston officials the most this week included requirements to treat utility customers living inside and outside the city limits equally, and provide equal access to municipal utility services inside and out.

The omnibus bill also prohibits Kinston from transferring money from one fund to another — Kinston and other municipalities around the state often balance their budgets with hefty transfers from utility funds to their general funds.

City Manager Tony Sears and Mayor B.J. Murphy recently told City Council members the legislation could force the city to offer the same utility rates to inside and outside customers, meaning a double-digit rate increase for city water and sewer customers — rates could increase by as much as 19 percent for water and 11 percent for sewer.

The city budget for next year includes an $800,000 transfer from the electric fund to help balance the general fund. City officials estimate property taxes would have to increase by as much as 6 cents to cover the gap if they could not make the transfer.

“If this does go through, we would have no other recourse but to implement those fees,” Sears said.

The text of the bill states of the utility section: “This Part applies only to the City of Kinston,” and it takes effect June 30.

Members of the council agreed Monday to table a vote on next year’s budget — which must be approved this month as the fiscal year begins July 1 — until they can get more information and talk to area legislators.

Murphy said Wednesday he had since spoken with LaRoque and asked him to consider removing the utility fund portion “because it would have a tremendous negative financial impact on our city and our customers.”

The mayor said LaRoque told him he would see what he could do.

LaRoque said this week the bill as it is written is far from finalized, and he has not submitted anything for consideration by the General Assembly yet.

“I haven’t filed anything,” he said. “This is all just preliminary work I’m doing on a local bill.”

LaRoque said he was “trying to find a way to bring equality” to outside water customers who have to pay higher rates than customers inside the city.

The legislator said the bill as it is — which must go before a committee in the N.C. Senate — will most likely be broken up.

On Wednesday, LaRoque said time is running short for the 2012 legislative session. He stressed the proposals are still in draft form, and “it’s not unusual” to never file legislation he has drafted.

“I’m not sure how much — if any — of that local bill we’re going to be able to take up this session,” LaRoque said.

 

David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 or danderson@freedomenc.com. Follow him on Twitter at DavidFreePress.