ROCKINGHAM — In an effort to continue mending the strained relationships with the cities and towns caused two years ago, the Richmond County Board of Commissioners this month unanimously approved the establishment of a municipal grant fund.
Commissioner Rick Watkins brought the idea to the table at the Nov. 1 meeting, saying the purpose of the fund would be to assist all the municipalities in Richmond County “with programs and activities that support the history and traditions of each individual municipality while providing a direct or indirect benefit for all the citizens residing in Richmond County.”
Watkins proposed that the fund consist of $728,910, a figure he said came about through mediation, adding that it will come through sales tax revenues and become a part of the annual budget.
In 2020, the Board of Commissioners at the time — including Watkins, Tavares Bostic and Don Bryant — voted to change the method of sales tax allocation from per capita, which is based on population, to ad valorem, which is based on property values.
The measure was met with opposition from the municipalities.
Other commissioners on that board were then-chairman Kenneth Robinette, Ben Moss (now in the N.C. House of Representatives), Jimmy Capps, and the late John Garner.
Watkins said he began the dialogue with the board during a work session about a year ago.
“And since that time I have continued to have discussions with individual board members informally about our desire to make sure that we were doing a good job of taking care of our municipal governments,” Watkins said.
According to Watkins, Vice Chairman Justin Dawkins has led the county’s efforts to reestablish meetings between the county and municipalities which have “resulted in a good number of needs the municipalities feel are important to them.”
Some of those, Watkins said, include Norman Fest, summer pool operations in Dobbins Heights, recreation programs in Hamlet and Rockingham, as well as holiday celebrations across the county and programs to support the youth and senior citizens.
Watkins added that the funds could also be used to increase public safety and provide for the general welfare of county residents.
“I think the municipalities need the reassurance so that they can accurately plan for each budget cycle — and so does this board,” Watkins said.
As of the meeting, the application process for the grant funds was not “clearly defined,” however, Watkins said requests would be handled on an individual basis.
Watkins also requested that County Manager Bryan Land work with the municipalities to establish guidelines “and identify future needs.”
The commissioner went on to say that he believes the language in the proposal discourages future litigation.
“In my mind, it’s a win for all Richmond County taxpayers, whether you live in a municipality or the county — or both,” Watkins said.
Bostic said he felt the proposal “furthers our opportunity to build a bridge that has long needed to be mended between the county and municipalities.”
“My hope is a proposal like this one shows the municipalities our commitment to continue to build a healthy relationship with them now and also in the future,” Bostic continued.
Commissioner Andy Grooms echoed the statement, saying he thinks the proposal is “an olive branch.”
“I hope that some see it for what it is, but I know right now that we don’t need to get our hopes up because there’s a few out there on these councils that, no matter what we do, will never be satisfied,” Grooms said.
Chairman Jeff Smart said that when he was elected to the board in late 2020 — along with Grooms and Toni Maples — the No. 1 topic was the sales tax debacle.
“I think that this group of seven commissioners has done an outstanding job in making that transition … not only in terms of money but terms of communication and … trying to open partnerships,” Smart said.
The chairman added that the figure for the fund was previously budgeted for one fiscal year, “and this group of commissioners” has allocated that for the past three fiscal years…which totals $2,186,730 “that we’ve committed back to the municipalities to spend the money however they see fit.”
“I’m proud of that,” Smart said. “I’m also proud that we’ve been able to mend some fences.”
Smart added that keeping the sales tax system is critical.
“I think it’s so very important for the community to realize how much more money changing this tax system brought to our kids and our school system in this county,” Smart said. “For so long, I’ve heard how far behind and how much money we don’t have to provide our schools … and this board has given … so much more money to the school system, the teachers, the administrative staff than I could have ever imagined.”
As long as the tax system stays as it is, Smart said, the school system will continue to get more money each year — depending on the level of the sales tax.
“We can bring in all the industries we want, folks, but if we don’t have the people to put there to work and provide an education necessary, it’s not going to work.”