Wilson council OKs contributions to community groups

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The Wilson City Council approved nearly $200,000 in grants to community organizations and causes during its monthly meeting last week.

The Community Investment Grant, formerly known as the council discretionary fund, included several allocations that were the same from past years, such as $50,000 for a voluntary energy assistance program, $36,000 to Wilson 20/20 Community Vision and $31,000 for a U.S. 301 corridor improvement capital project.

In past years, the council earmarked $10,000 for the N.C. Whirligig Festival, but upped the allocation to $15,000 this year. Last year Eyes on Main Street received a contribution from Greenlight Community Broadband and Wilson Energy, but this year, the council allocated $15,000. Preservation of Wilson also has received $50,000 annually for a number of years, but those funds also were paid through the community investment grant fund.

In other financial news from the meeting, the council agreed to sell a surplus diesel bucket truck to the town of Pinetops for $13,000 and members approved a resolution for the disbursement of the 2017 N.C. Housing Finance Agency Urgent Repair Program, which provides financial assistance with owner-occupied renovations.

The presentation portion of the meeting was prolonged with the declaration of Sept. 24 to 30 as Rail Safety Week, the month of September as National Preparedness Month and Oct. 1 to 7 as Public Power Week.

The city’s lobbyist, Jack Cozort, also updated the council about action taken during the regular legislative session as well as a special session that the General Assembly held in August and talked about what action might be considered during another special session scheduled to start on Oct. 4.

“If I went into every bill that affected the city, we’d be here all night,” Cozort said. “There were over 1,000 bills introduced this session and it seemed like half had to do with city government as part of a continued trend. We’ve seen in the last couple sessions of the General Assembly that they are studying the relationship between the state and local government and how much discretion local governments should have to do things.”

One bill Cozort used as an example is House Bill 340, which would provide firefighters and rescue squad workers with an extra post-retirement benefit called a “special separation allowance.” Cozort explained the bill is an effort to mimic similar benefits provided to law enforcement, but it does not include a way for municipalities to fund the allowance if it is enacted.

“As they keep meddling in our city’s business, are they going to come back with a lineman benefit? How are they valuing one group of employees more than most?” asked Councilman James Johnson. “...If I was a lineman and these hurricanes were going on, I’d call the legislators and ask about us.

“Everyone wants to be Santa Claus and the legislators are proving that, but they are not providing any money to be Santa Claus.”

House Bill 900, the safe infrastructure and low property tax act, was scheduled for a House vote but was pulled from the calendar and is eligible for consideration during the special session or during the short session in May. Cozort said it was developed by the N.C. League of Municipalities to help generate additional revenues and he vowed to continue lobbying for it.

The BRIGHT Futures Act, or House Bill 68, was introduced to help facilitate public-private partnerships to grow the state’s broadband connections to rural communities. Cozort said it was altered through efforts by telecommunication lobbyists.

“Unfortunately the substance of the bill didn’t live up to the title or the initial purpose,” he said.

City Manager Grant Goings echoed Cozort’s frustrations, highlighting how the same group of lobbyists fought Greenlight’s expansion into Pinetops.

“It seems like there is a clearinghouse, so that no matter how a telecommunications bill starts, it goes from helpful to hurtful and this followed that same path,” Goings said. “I’m not optimistic that any bill on that subject will be favorable, no matter how it started out. By the time it hits the floor (of the General Assembly), it doesn’t look anything like it did when it started.”

Cozort said the gamut of bills that could be considered during the short session is lengthy, but other topics could include constitutional amendments, overrides of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes and judicial redistricting as well as tweaks to the newly approved legislative district maps.

“The legislature was instructed to draw new districts and they did that in the August sessions, so those districts are now being reviewed by the three-judge panel that declared the 2011 districts unconstitutional,” Cozort said. “There are lots of experts who have offered their opinion that they don’t think there is enough difference in the August maps from the 2011 districts to withstand the scrutiny, so they may be told to redraw them again or the court may redraw it themselves.”