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Officials Dissatisfied With Intergovernmental Retreats, Looking To Discuss Sales-Tax Issue After Elections

By Jesse Wood 

Sept. 18, 2013. Phillip Trew of the High Country Council of Governments spoke before the Watauga County Board of Commissioners and the Boone Town Council on Tuesday night and expressed that some officials are dissatisfied with the intergovernmental retreats. 

In an Aug. 29 letter addressed to officials of Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock, Seven Devils, Boone, ASU and Watauga County, Trew wrote: “The complaints focus on the fact that the retreats have not focused on issues of significance, and have not resulted in achievements.”

Intergovernmental retreats, which are held on the campus of ASU, began in 2008 and have occurred regularly since 2009 in the months of March and September. Topics have included recreation, transportation, water and sewer plans, consolidated dispatch and other issues.

During these retreats, a presenter from one of the bodies will present a topic and a few questions might follow, however no action is taken. This fall, the topic of the sales-tax distribution was suggested by some of the officials.

In April, the commissioners decided to redistribute the sales tax on an ad valorem basis rather than a per capita basis, which caused the Town of Boone to receive roughly $1.7 million of revenue during the current fiscal year. Watauga County, Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock and Seven Devils coordinated a hybrid solution, whereby those governments gave back some of the increased revenues of the sales tax distribution, so Watauga County wouldn’t go in the red with the change.

At Tuesday’s commissioners meeting, Trew noted that some High Country officials agreed that sales tax wouldn’t be a “good topic” for the retreat. He noted that there likely wouldn’t be much “back-and-forth” and discussion out in the open.  

“We wouldn’t really have any hope of getting anything accomplished in the same format we’ve been having,” Trew said, proposing that if each local government is interested in continuing these retreats in the hopes of accomplishing results, then perhaps a better method would be for the bodies to send two delegates to a meeting in the future.

Trew noted that new method would include funding a facilitator to spend one day preparing for the meeting and another day during the day of the retreat. Trew said a recommended facilitator from the UNC School of Government would cost $2,000 for the two days and the cost would be split among the governments.

“My suggestion would be to go with a third party, neutral … and really dig into the dissatisfaction and why nothing is getting accomplished and get us a good direction moving forward,” Trew said.

Trew noted that Beech Mountain tentatively approved two representatives Councilman E. Rick Miller and Mayor Rick Owen to be its delegates after the municipal elections in November. Trew added that Blowing Rock decided to wait until after the municipal elections to choose delegates and that Seven Devils took no action on the issue at prior meetings.

Chair Nathan Milller said he was one of the people who expressed dissatisfaction with the retreats. Miller said all the other municipalities wish to speak in the open regarding the sales tax issue, however “they wish not to talk about it.”

Miller said he would be willing to meet in this method as long as the meeting is in open session.

Miller and Commissioner Billy Kennedy each said they would like to be one of the delegates, and the commissioners unanimously agreed.

Trew noted that he would be back before the board after the municipal elections in December with more details on a new retreat format.

At the Boone Town Council meeting, Councilman Andy Ball said that he doesn’t see an initial meeting being a forum for a sales tax issue.

Councilwoman Lynne Mason said that other topics could always be discussed, too.

Either way, the Boone Town Council agreed to hold off choosing delegates until after the municipal elections in November.

Mark S. Kenna contributed to this report.