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Currituck hears pros, cons of unified gov't

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Currituck County Commissioner Paul Beaumont (right) gives his views about a unified government in Currituck as Camden County Attorney John Morrison listens, at a work session of the Currituck Board of Commissioners, Monday, April 16. Morrison was invited to the Currituck board meeting to discuss the pros and cons of having a unified government.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, April 23, 2018

CURRITUCK — Proceeding with a proposal to make Currituck a “unified” city-county government might bring the county an additional $1 million a year in state revenues. However, it also could spark citizen outrage and create political division in some areas of the county, an expert on Currituck’s previous bid for unified government says.

John Morrison, a former county attorney for Currituck who now serves as Camden County’s legal counsel, spent 45 minutes with Currituck commissioners last week discussing the pros and cons of forming a unified government as well as the county’s unsuccessful effort in 2006 to form one.

Morrison also talked about Camden’s 12-year experience with being North Carolina’s only unified city-county government, saying “it has been good.” Unlike Currituck, whose voters rejected the idea of unified government by an overwhelming 63-37 percent margin in 2006, Camden voters approved their county’s referendum, 57 percent to 43 percent, the same year.

Despite county voters previous rejection of unified government, some Currituck commissioners have expressed interest in revisiting the idea. 

Commissioner Paul Beaumont said he’s interested in the idea because of what it could mean for county revenues. Under state law, cities receive a share of franchise tax revenues collected from public utilities operating in the state. Counties don’t get a share of those revenues.

Morrison said when he was working for Currituck in advance of the 2006 referendum, the University of North Carolina School of Government estimated a city-county government in Currituck could receive more than $1 million a year in additional state revenues. Morrison said Camden, which is smaller than Currituck, now receives approximately $500,000 a year in franchise tax revenue.

As a city, Currituck also would become eligible for grants now only awarded to cities and towns, Morrison said.

In addition to the extra revenue, there are a number of other advantages to having a unified government, Morrison said. One is that it prevents duplication of services and allows for smoother long-term planning.

Another is having a unified political voice for the county, he said. Morrison noted that one of the reasons Currituck officials expressed interest in having a unified government in 2006 was neighboring Dare County’s experience with six municipal governments.

Another reason for a county to have a unified government, he said, is to fend off any annexation effort by a neighboring city government. Under existing law, cities can annex areas of a county but not parts of another city. Morrison noted that Currituck’s previous bid for unified government was driven in part by concern that Chesapeake, Virginia might cross the state line and annex land in northern Currituck. 

It was in fact Camden’s real experience with annexation that drove its voters to approve unified government, Morrison said. Elizabeth City annexed a portion of the Camden Causeway in the early 1980s. To prevent further annexation of the causeway, Camden commissioners sought the referendum on unified government, he said.

Morrison also outlined some of the drawbacks of pursuing unified government for Currituck commissioners. One of the biggest is that communities within the county lose their legal right to incorporate, he said.

"There are many citizens in Moyock and Corolla, based on my previous experience, that perceive this as a loss of a valuable legal right they have," Morrison said.

Morrison made clear residents of a unified city-county government do give up the right of incorporation.

"If this happens, they lose that right," he said. "Some of those folks, you can anticipate, will organize, as they did in the past. It becomes very controversial. It creates political divisions and unpleasantness."

Morrison recalled being designated by county officials in 2006 to explain to residents why Currituck was pursing unified government — and facing packed crowds at community meetings at fire stations in Moyock and Corolla.

"And I was the anti-Christ. And no matter what I said, I was an agent of the county sent to pull the wool over their eyes," he said.

Morrison advised commissioners they are likely to face similar citizen sentiment again if they pursue unified government.

"You're surely going to run into the 'I smell a rat' syndrome," he said.

Commissioners are also likely to face the “if it’s not broke, why fix it?” question from some residents about why their county government needs this change, Morrison said.

The question commissioners ultimately need to ask themselves, he said, is the same one residents will ask: "Does anybody in the county really want this?"

During commissioner questions, board Chairman Bobby Hanig asked Morrison what a unified government in Currituck could do with the franchise tax revenue it received from the state.

"It's free money," Morrison replied.

Morrison noted Currituck could, by ordinance, designate the revenue for a specific use, such as to help fund public education or to pay for the planning department.

"There's no strings attached to it," he said.

Morrison noted that timing is important when it comes to forming a unified government. If residents of Moyock or Corolla, for example, were to receive lawmakers’ approval to incorporate first, Currituck could not form a unified government, he said. 

If that happens, "then this ball game is over. The window is shut," Morrison said.

Beaumont, who has been on the board since 2014, recalled attending meetings in Moyock when the subject of unified government came up a dozen years ago. He said there were Moyock residents at the time who opposed it because they believed forming their own town was a great idea. They changed their minds, however, after they started to understand how much incorporation was going to cost them in additional taxes.

"And I think that (the subject of Moyock incorporation) has died," he said. "No one has even whispered that in years."

Commissioner Marion Gilbert, who represents Moyock on the board, said the subject of Moyock incorporation still does come up now and then.

"But as soon as they are educated (about the extra costs), they back off and walk away," Gilbert said.

At least one Currituck resident is opposed to the idea of unified government in Currituck.

Gerri Adams, president of the Crown Point Property Owners Association in Corolla, said she’s against the idea because it closes off the opportunity for her community to elect a government more representative of residents’ wishes. She believes Corolla “is under-represented" on the county commission board.

Asked if Corolla ought to have its own town hall, town council and planning and police departments, she said, "I’d like to have the option to consider it."

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