This editorial appeared in the Lenoir News-Topic:
News that the General Assembly may consider changing its 20-year-old formula for setting priorities for state economic aid sounds overdue, provided that legislators can remove the more arbitrary criteria without making it harder for rural areas like Caldwell County to get help when they need it.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reports that John Turcotte, director of the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, has sent the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee a report recommending that legislators scrap the formula by July 1, 2018, and form a commission to re-examine how the state identifies assisting economically distressed communities.
Since 1996 the state has used a system dividing its 100 counties into three tiers, with the 40 counties in Tier 1 considered the most economically distressed and the 20 counties in Tier 3 the most well off. The formula takes into account average unemployment rate, median household income, population growth and property tax base. Based on those, the counties are listed 1 to 100, with 1 the most economically distressed.
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But more than economic factors comes into play before the final rankings are set.
A county is automatically in Tier 1 if it has fewer than 12,000 people, or if it has fewer than 50,000 people and a poverty rate of 19 percent or greater. A county that goes from Tier 2 into Tier 1 is required to be in Tier 1 the next year, too, no matter what happens in the local economy. Counties under 50,000 population cannot be Tier 3, no matter what.
Those requirements are among the reasons that Caldwell County at the start of last year rose from Tier 1 to Tier 2 even though the economic numbers showed it having the 22nd-most-distressed economy in the state, why it dropped back to Tier 1 this year and can’t go back to Tier 2 until 2018. Bill Gates could open Microsoft Southeast here, plus hand out $1 million to every county resident tomorrow, but the county would officially be listed as economically distressed through 2017.
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Weddington, a co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, told the Citizen-Times that the committee has voted “to prepare legislation in support of the recommendations of the report.”
But, he cautioned, “That doesn’t mean the committee will move forward.”
Of course it doesn’t – changing a 20-year-old formula would have winners and losers. If the losers don’t have the clout – or winners’ legislators have more of it – then nothing is likely to happen.
But there are good reasons for legislators to move cautiously.
For instance, the tier system is a factor in state economic aid, but the Citizen-Times says the report from Turcotte’s office cites the fact that some state programs with no connection to economic development also use the tier system. Whether a program has “no connection” to economic development may be a determination that lies in the eye of the beholder – every program has dollars attached, and dollars drive development – but therein lies the need for caution.
We all might agree that the system has flaws and arbitrary elements, but everyone better know exactly how many applecarts will be upset, and roughly how many apples they hold, before giving the go-ahead to topple them.
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