Carolina Journal News Reports
GREENSBORO — Seems like nobody knows exactly what a “council of government” does. Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis admitted as much during a recent public meeting discussing the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments.
“You guys have been there all along, but I’m just not familiar with you. This is so new to me,” Davis told PTCOG interim director Ginger Booker.
It’s not as if Davis is a political novice; he’s served on the commission for nine years. Furthermore, fellow Commissioner Carolyn Coleman serves on PTCOG’s board.
So if a county commissioner doesn’t know what PTCOG does, then you can probably imagine the average citizen is equally clueless — even though citizens are paying to keep councils of government throughout the state in existence.
According to the North Carolina Regional Councils’ website, regional councils of government have been operating in the state since 1972, the result of legislation that charged the Department of Administration with developing “a system of multi-county regional planning districts to cover the entire state.”
Currently, 17 councils serve regions that “share similar economic, physical and social characteristics.” Every county in North Carolina belongs to a regional council of government.
PTCOG’s website reports an operating budget of approximately $1.2 million, with over half the revenue coming from member government dues and income earned from technical assistance to member governments.
In addition to its operating budget, the PTCOG “passes through” more than $4.9 million to counties and nonprofits for services to the elderly such as adult day care, care management, transportation, in-home services, and senior center operations.
PTCOG’s major accomplishment is the incorporation the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority, the entity behind the construction and the operation of the Randleman Reservoir. PTCOG helped staff the water authority and steer funding toward the authority. Water flowed from the reservoir in October and should help lower water rates for Greensboro, which suffered water shortages during recent droughts.
Currently, 46 city and county governments belong to PTCOG. Membership is voluntary, and dues are based on a per capita formula. Guilford County bears the brunt of those dues, with the county and the cities of Greensboro and High Point all paying dues, which leads some public officials to complain that Guilford is getting “triple-dipped.”
PTCOG has been in the spotlight lately because it is seeking a merger with the Northwest Triad Council of Governments to form the Piedmont Triad Regional Council. In order for the merger to take place, member governments in both councils must pass resolutions supporting the dissolution of PTCOG and the distribution of its assets.
As a result, Booker has been appearing before member governments in an effort to get resolutions passed before a self-imposed March 31 deadline, emphasizing that the merger will “reduce fragmentation in the region.”
So far, 31 of PTCOG’s local government members have signed off, including Greensboro, but not before some council members complained about an increase in dues.
“We only have one voting member, yet we pay a larger share of the dues,” council member Trudy Wade said during the March 1 meeting. “That seems a little unfair.”
At its March 17 meeting, county commissioners asked harder questions, especially when they learned the county’s dues would increase following the merger.
“How can you merge and tell me you need more money to operate? In the business world, when you merge, it takes less money to operate,” said Commissioner Billy Yow. “To me, this is another nonprofits, if you will, pulling money from the backs of the taxpayers. And it is a burden on taxpayers in all the counties.”
Commission Chairman Skip Alston took it a step further, suggesting that Guilford pull out of PTCOG. The county could secure its own state and federal grants for half of what the council is charging, he added.
Commissioners voted to table the resolution. In a phone interview, Alston said he would raise the issue at an April work session and that he believed he had the support of a majority of commissioners.
“It’s a serious option,” Alston said. “I wouldn’t ask for it if I didn’t have support.”
Even more serious issues have caused officials in eastern North Carolina to ponder the role of councils of government. Earlier this year the story broke that the Eastern Carolina Council of Government was forced to write off more than $650,000 in loans issues through its revolving loan program.
Audits in 2009 and 2010 highlighted issues with the council’s oversight of the loan program, which was targeted toward businesses who had been turned down twice by private sector banks. The U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration has since suspended the council’s ability to make revolving loans.
Such problems have prompted county commissioners in the eastern part of the state to question membership in the ECCOG. “I question the necessity of their existence,” Pamlico County Commissioner Christine Mele told Carolina Journal. “We could take [membership dues] and give [them] back to our own people.”
The problems with the business loans prompted the resignation in protest of board member Robert Masters, who served for 18 months as the board’s treasurer.
Masters, a well-respected member representing the town of Snow Hill, has been open about ECCOG’s problems, and has recommended that Snow Hill pull out of the council.
In a phone interview, Masters said there were two main problems. First, councils of government had become politicized, overseen by politician with no input from professional government staff.
“They basically removed the participation of professional government staff,” Masters said. “That was a bad mistake.”
The second problem Masters said, is that the “COG is ambiguous. Nobody knows what the hell it is.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.