Currituck to study unified gov't

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Camden County government attorney John Morrison

Currituck Commissioner Paul Beaumont.JPG

By William F. West
Staff Writer

Sunday, April 15, 2018

CURRITUCK — Twelve years ago, Currituck County voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have allowed their county to also take on the powers of a city — to become, in effect, a “unified” government. 

Despite that message from Currituck voters, the county’s current Board of Commissioners wants to explore the topic of unified government again. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the topic during a special work session at the Currituck Courthouse, Monday at 4:30 p.m.

County Manager Dan Scanlon said John Morrison, county attorney for neighboring Camden County, which has a unified government, has been invited to give a presentation on the topic.

The subject of unified government in Currituck first resurfaced during commissioners’ annual retreat in January. Although scheduled for discussion, commissioners ended up not talking about it during the busy two-day event. 

Commissioner Paul Beaumont said a fellow commissioner raised the subject of unified government before he did, but he noted he’s wanted to discuss it for probably a year.

Beaumont said he's particularly interested in the idea because becoming a city could give Currituck access to additional state tax revenues. Currently the state levies a franchise tax on all utilities operating in North Carolina, including the internet, railroads and sewer and water services. Revenues from that tax are then distributed to cities on a per-capita basis. Counties don’t get a share of the money.

Beaumont said Currituck, if it had a unified government, could see significant benefits from a share of franchise tax revenue.

“The revenue could be somewhere north of $1 million a year,” he said.

Beaumont said if a majority of voters in Currituck were to support unified government, he’d like to see the extra revenue targeted at three areas: law enforcement; firefighting; and public education.

“We've heard a lot from the school system about requiring or needing extra funds for the schools for operational expenses — and certainly that's worth looking into and considering,” he said.

Beaumont, who serves on the Currituck Fire Advisory Board, also cited the ongoing need for updated firefighting equipment which can be expensive. He also noted Currituck hasn't added many deputies to its Sheriff’s Office, even as the county's population continues to grow.

Commission Chairman Bobby Hanig emphasized Monday’s work session is only informational.

"Some people want to know what it's about and instead of different commissioners or different folks trying to explain it, we thought it better just to get someone in here and get educated on it," he said.

Morrison may know more about the subject of unified government than anyone in the state.

In 2005, in fact, he was Currituck’s attorney when both it and Camden won legislative approval to hold referendums on becoming unified governments.

According to Morrison, there were fears in Currituck at the time that the city of Chesapeake might try to cross the Virginia border and annex part of northern Currituck. Apparently there’s nothing in either state’s laws preventing such a move.

There were also fears in Currituck, Morrison said, of the county ending up like neighboring Dare County, which has a county government but also half a dozen municipal governments.

Morrison said he worked to get state lawmakers to pass special legislation allowing both Currituck and Hyde counties to hold referendums on allowing their counties to become unified governments.

At the 11th hour, however, Morrison says Camden commissioners were able to add an amendment to the legislation allowing Camden voters to also vote on allowing their county to become a unified government.

Morrison said the reason Camden commissioners wanted a unified government was simple: to block further annexation of Camden by the city of Elizabeth City.

In 1986, city officials crossed the Pasquotank River and annexed part of the Camden Causeway. Morrison said Camden residents and officials still rankled at the memory two decades later, primarily because Camden residents were forced to pay city property taxes and receive city utilities. 

Camden's legal reasoning for pursuing a unified government, Morrison said, is that it would stop further annexation. Under state law at the time, a city could annex land across county lines, but a city couldn’t annex land in another city.

When the referendums on unified government were held in Camden and Currituck in November, the results were drastically different. While 57 percent of Camden voters cast ballots in favor of unified government, 63 percent of Currituck voters cast ballots against the idea.

According to Morrison, there was a lot of opposition to Currituck’s referendum in both Moyock and Corolla.

Morrison said Moyock residents believed, correctly, that voting for unified government would deprive them of the right to incorporate and adopt their own zoning regulations and set up their own services like law enforcement. Under state law, a community can’t incorporate if it’s already part of a city or town.  

"They felt they were losing a right to incorporate," he said. "And they had a point."

At the same time, there were residents in Corolla who felt like they weren’t receiving their fair share of county services for the property taxes they were paying the county.

There was also concern at the time that the Currituck Board of Commissioners "was becoming too active, too powerful — and things were changing too fast," Morrison said.