As Morrisville’s council members discussed the town’s new legislative agenda last month, some of the town’s long-running priorities – road funding, revenue and development standards – were tinged with the uncertainty that accompanies a political transition like the one that took place on Election Day.
The council will review and adopt an agenda for the 2017-18 legislative session at its Dec. 13 meeting, following a Dec. 6 work session.
Morrisville’s council members said they desire more discretion over the town’s affairs.
Mayor Mark Stohlman said in an interview, and at a Nov. 22 discussion of the agenda, that he hopes the town and other municipal government advocates will convince legislators to reinstate privilege license fees, a form of local business tax that the state legislature eliminated in 2014. Stohlman said legislators promised at the time they would ultimately revisit the fees and reinstate them under stricter scrutiny and regulation, but that hasn’t happened yet.
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“For a town like Morrisville, we were on track to make $800,000 or $900,000 a year in those fees, which in those days was 2.5 or 3 cents on the tax rate,” Stohlman said. “Luckily, we had so much growth that it kind of made up for that lost revenue.”
The council also agreed it wants to push for further tweaks to sales tax distribution models, which recently have been changed to favor rural communities more than in years past. Stohlman said many urban and suburban areas such as Morrisville view those changes as having come at their expense.
“Urban areas say they’re producing all the sales, but rural areas say, ‘Well, those are our people going there, those are our shoppers,’ ” Stohlman said.
Councilwoman Liz Johnson, who is the council’s longest serving member, sits on the board of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. She emphasized to the council the importance of a concise and specific set of demands.
“Our staff is really good about finding grant opportunities and letting us know,” Johnson said. “When those opportunities arise, you really need to have specific things in mind.”
Morrisville’s chief priorities also include securing more state and federal dollars to improve the congested major roadways that crisscross town. Mayor pro tem Steve Rao said the town has been paying “more than its fair share” for recent road projects and suggested appealing directly to the state’s federal representatives when possible.
“We’ll continue to look at how we get legislation that will reward Morrisville more aggressively for putting so much money into its road projects,” he said. “I’d like to invite Sen. (Richard) Burr for a visit, maybe at 5 in the afternoon, so he can really understand our situation.”
In the area of environmental regulation, for instance, recent state statutes have forbidden municipal regulations more stringent than what is required at the state and federal levels. Council members Vicki Scroggins-Johnson and TJ Cawley said they worry that potential environmental deregulation under President-elect Donald Trump would further limit the council’s ability to protect its soil and water.
Cawley said he supports legislation that allows local governments to protect environmental and water quality.
“The new administration might move that backward a little bit, so it’s important to move to protect what we have,” he said.
Also in Washington, Trump’s recent nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general could be especially notable for large segments of Morrisville and Cary. Both towns are home to high concentrations of Indian and South Asian immigrants in the country on H1-B visas, which are commonly awarded to high-skill workers in science and technology fields.
Sessions has publicly called for the overhaul and possible abandonment of that program, which he and Trump argue poses a threat to the jobs and wages of American workers. During Sessions’ time in the Senate, he co-sponsored a bill that aims to curb the numbers of H1-B visas awarded each year by about 25 percent.
Rao said he had recently fielded questions from members of the town’s South Asian communities about what might happen to the program under the new administration. Rao said he hopes Morrisville, where demand for tech workers often outstrips supply, would present a compelling example of somewhere the visas are necessary and successful.
“People might be working on assignment and don’t know if (their visa) will be extended or if they’ll have to go back,” Rao said. “So we owe it to them to keep up with this.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan