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Archive for March, 2009

The back and forth debate on a proposed Fibrowatt power plant in Surry County is way too complex to summarize in this space, although you can read some of the ongoing arguments here, here or here.

But no matter the reason, a majority of local residents are in opposition to the $140 million project, according to Yadkin Riverkeeper, an advocacy group for protecting the area’s river basin. The organization commissioned a telephone survey by non partisan Public Policy Polling, the results of which show overwhelming views against Fibrowatt or industrial development in general for the area. These findings would dispute county commissioners’ long cited claims that the majority of residents are in favor of the project.

When assessing any survey, however, it’s critical to look at the specific wording of the questions asked, especially with a complex topic like this. County commissioners say they’ve recieved complaints from those surveyed that the questions were skewed against Fibrowatt. I wasn’t surveyed myself, but I requested from Yadkin Riverkeeper a copy of the questions. I’ll report back if they’re sent over.

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State legislators sponsor a handful of bill each session and put their names down as co-sponsors for dozens more, few of which ever come up for a vote.

The latest bill filed by Rep. Darrell McCormick probably will fall into that “never see the light of day” category, but it’s intriguing if only for the precedent it would set just by making it through committee. McCormick, a Republican who represents eastern Surry County and all of Yadkin County, has proposed legislation allowing a recall of county commissioners in Yadkin between now and the end of 2010. Triggering such a recall election would require as many signatures as the votes received by the commissioner in the last election. I don’t follow Yadkin politics closely anymore, but I imagine this issue is fueling sentiment to pick off some commissioners with unpopular views.

If the bill somehow gets through the General Assembly, imagine how many other counties might ask for this same option. That alone probably sinks its chances, meaning voters will need long memories when commissioners come up for re-elections. Most unpopular decisions fade from view by the time the next election cycle comes round.

What other bills have our local legislators filed as primary sponsors this session? Rep. Sarah Stevens has called for Motorcycle Awareness Month, a sharper crackdown on public school bullying, and allowing teens aged 15-18 to receive volunteer firefighting and rescue squad training. Sen. Don East has called for reducing the corporate income tax rate,  giving each school board to authority to set its own school start date, and funds for a Forsyth Technical Community College campus in Stokes County. McCormick is among those behind the bill to change the name of the lottery and also wants to create a committee studying grandparents’ visitation rights.

All of these bills are worth more study on their impact if they make it out of committee. That’s a big if. There are long odds against any bill making it to a floor vote, espeically those filed by freshmen legislators in the minority party.

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First came the library defenders, now it’s landscaping advocates asking for mercy. The blowback of the Mount Airy city council’s ranking of essential a municipal services is that those who see their items of choice at the bottom are alarmed at what the final budget could produce. It started when former commissioner Tom Bagnal pleaded the council to spare library cuts, since that was among the items on the bottom of list.

This month Downtown Mount Airy Inc., a board that represents Main Street merchants, made a formal plea to the council not to cut landscaping in the downtown district, saying it greatly enhances their business and is a source of civic pride. Few would argue with either of those statements, but the question on the council’s mind is whether it’s a benefit that should be borne by general taxpayers.

There’s other potential services eyed for cutbacks, from certain benefits for city employees to sidewalk repairs to recreation programs for teens and senior citizens. We’ll find out in the next month which of those services has its own advocacy group.

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When the North Carolina Education Lottery was approved in the NC General Assembly in 2005 by a razor thin margin, I covered the story and was told extensively by Republican detractors that the money generated for schools would get raided whenever budgets became tight.

They were right. With the state facing its first significant budget deficit since the lottery was established, a chunk of lottery profits has been utilized to plug the multi-billion dollar hole in the general fund. The move attracted the kind of angry protest you’d expect from those counting on education funds. But one legislator representing part of Surry County has taken a more tongue in cheek route in his response.

Darrell McCormick, a Republican whose district represents the eastern third of the county, is one of four primary sponsors of a bill filed last week to strip the word “education” out of the “North Carolina Education Lottery’s” title. Sarah Stevens, Surry’s other representative in the House, is a co-sponsor.

It’s a form of protest at lottery backers reneging on their  pledge to keep those profits for schools, a major selling point in getting the lottery enacted. It’s unlikely this bill gets through to a vote in a Democrat controlled legislature, but it might tighten pressure on keeping all lottery revenues solely in the hands of schools.

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Anyone arriving at Thursday’s public hearing on a state prison in Surry County looking for some conflict on the issue, and my strong hunch is that WXII fell into that category, would have left fairly underwhelmed. While the TV news report does make note of some opposition to the concept of a prison, that was exclusively a byproduct of fierce objection to a Fibrowatt power plant near Elkin. Residents came to speak out against the plant, and with the prison public hearing next on the agenda, their comments bled over into general criticism about Surry’s economic direction.

But no one arrived Thursday specifically to voice objections to the prison, and other speakers revealed how the idea has gained favor among pretty much every elected official for Surry. As detailed in the March 6 Messenger, the area’s legislative delegation is now backing the project, and proponents continue to bend ears in Raleigh to give the county a leg up over other’s competing for the $100 million facility.

There was a huge elephant in the room, however, and that’s the great unknown of what sites the county could offer up the state for prison construction. Not just any piece of land will do. It’s got to be big (100-150 acres), near utilities, close to a highway network and not so expensive as to break the taxpayers’ back. Then of course you have the opposition almost certain to arise from those who live nearby.

With hundreds of jobs tied to this project, it continues to gain momentum in terms of support. But where exactly could a prison be placed? And will the search for that site, and the public hearings after one is selected, eventually grind the momentum to a halt?

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In what has almost become a right of legislative passage, Sen. Tony Rand has once again filed a bill that would effectively merge city school systems into the county school system. The legislation doesn’t force a merger, but it cuts out a significant pot of administrative and teaching funds given to each school district, allocating that package only once per county. So the school systems for Mount Airy and Elkin would have to pay for a big chunk of those expenses themselves using local taxes rather than rely upon the state.

Whenever this comes up, boards and staff from both of Surry’s city school districts cry foul and launch an agressive lobbying campaign against the bill, especially in Elkin. Rand is among the most powerful legislators in Raleigh, and could probably push this  through if he really wanted, but thus far he’s seemed content to simply float the idea each year and then back off. Maybe this is the year we see action, or maybe it’s just another unrealized threat to city school districts.

Either way, expect a heated response from the local school boards and probably some emails to staff and parents urging them take up the cause of saving the city school district. It’s a complex debate involving the most efficient way to educate students, with many of the same arguments already being exchanged on both sides in Davidson County. It would certainly simplify the process of districting and school construction and save the state millions to merge. The question is whether the success of our city school districts (relative to state averages) rests on their independent status or on strong faculty who wouldn’t be lost in a merger.

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That’s not an original, or even a newly coined, metaphor to describe the prolonged debate over a Fibrowatt plant in Surry County turning poultry litter into electricity. Throughout the two-year recruitment process, public officials and environmental groups batted back and forth on whether the proposed $150 million plant would do more economic good than environmental harm. Those following it all heard this metaphor more than once from a variety of sources.

But a grassroots group that just bubbled up opposing the plant has a new metaphor, and a new argument, to throw into the sphere of public debate. It involves Surry County, with its attractive natural resources and tourist destinations, as the prettiest girl at the ball and the power plant as a chain smoking deadbeat trying to take her home. Simply put, new opponents think saying yes to the plant means saying no to possible growth in the tourism and retirement sectors, sacrificing a quick boost to the tax base for a more sustainable plan to lure new businesses through quality of life. And that’s only one component of the multi-faceted status of the plant, a crossroads detailed in the March 1 edition of The Messenger.

Nine months after Fibrowatt’s announcement to locate in Surry, the company is still looking for a power purchase agreement with Duke Energy, while the county is still firming up a multi-million dollar incentives package. There’s still rezoning needed on the proposed site and an air quality permit from the state before any construction can begin. With hundreds of residents just now adding their voices to the debate, and local government officials reiterating their strong support, expect a lot more unsavory metaphors in the next few months.

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