Talk of unified government resurfaces in Currituck 

Published 1:21 pm Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The idea of a unified government is not a new one. But, when it came up the first time in 2005 it proved not to be a popular one either. 

When put to voters about creating a “unified” Currituck County, more than 60 percent said “no thanks.” 

But, the idea is recirculating and just prior to the Board of Commissioners’ final April meeting, county officials met in a work session to talk about a unified government with the attorney who worked on the idea that first time around, John Morrison, who was also the county’s attorney at that time. 

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Since then, Morrison became county attorney for Camden County, where the unified government concept was passed by the voters and is currently in place, pretty much without notice, Morrison said at the work session. 

A unified government is only possible in a county where there are no incorporated municipalities, and Currituck is one of only two such counties left in the state, Morrison reported. The other is Hyde. 

It was Currituck that first brought up the concept to state legislators and was successful in getting a state law passed creating unified government. County officials at the time first looked at making Currituck County a city, expanding the county’s obligation and opportunity to the level given to cities, but the same was accomplished with the unified concept. 

Once a county is unified, communities cannot become incorporated, something that has circulated a few times over the years in Moyock and particularly in Corolla where there was an organized effort to incorporate a few years ago, but that was turned down by the General Assembly (the body that gives the final decision about whether or not a community can incorporate). However, if established, a unified government can be reversed, giving those communities back the ability to incorporate if desired. 

As a unified government, Currituck would be entitled to a portion of the franchise tax (the tax paid on utilities and distributed to cities), estimated to bring about $1 million a year to the county, money that has no restrictions as to its use. Revenue from the franchise tax brings Camden about $500,000 a year, Morrison explained, as commissioner Mary Etheridge added that she talked with some folks from Camden recently who thanked Currituck for doing all the work to create the authorization for a unified government. 

In addition, Elizabeth City cannot extend its borders any further into Camden as a unified government, something that Morrison said he believes helped pass the unified government referendum in that county. There was some thinking when the unified idea first came up, that the municipalities next to Currituck’s borders, including in Virginia, might be inclined to annex part of the county, which is legally possible, Morrison advised, but rather remote, he added. 

Annexation by a city is often driven by utilities, county manager Dan Scanlon advised, such as collecting more customers for a water system. 

Board chairman Bobby Hanig questioned if the county would lose certain grants earmarked only for counties if it becomes a unified government. Morrison advised the county would still qualify for funding exclusively for counties, as well as funding for cities. 

In detailing the pros and cons, Morrison pointed out that a single county government means services are not duplicated, and property owners aren’t paying county and town taxes for two sheriff offices, two planning departments, two health departments, etc. County and town ordinances may differ or be in conflict making long term planning and a single vision more difficult to achieve. 

A unified government speaks with one voice at the state and national levels, having more influence than multiple voices from multiple towns (there are currently 600 local governments – towns, cities, counties – in North Carolina). 

Morrison also talked about some reasons why not to create a unified government, including that many in Moyock and Corolla were resistant to the first attempt and may well organize again to resist another referendum, perceiving a unified county government as a loss of their legal right to incorporate. 

The controversy could create political divisions, Morrison noted. There will also be those who contend that “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” and those who will say “I smell a rat,” suspecting the county is up to something. 

Educating the public will be key, he suggested. 

Moyock commissioner Marion Gilbert said the idea of Moyock incorporating comes up at times, but once folks find out more about becoming a town, they tend to back away from the idea. 

Morrison explained that cities do not have an obligation related to education, while counties do, and Currituck would maintain that responsibility as a unified government. Cities can also build and maintain roads, sidewalks and bike paths, counties cannot, but a unified government would also have that ability. However, because of the cost of roads, Morrison noted that Camden has chosen not to exercise that authority. 

The county manager added that if the county would build a road, it would also have to maintain and repair it, once it’s your road, it stays your road, he advised. 

In talking about the technical differences between counties and municipalities, Morrison explained that counties are designated as agents of the state in the state constitution, and municipalities are for the administration of local government, but both are established by the legislature and only have the powers granted by the legislature. 

When asked by chairman Hanig about a timeframe for the process, Morrison said it would start with a vote from the commissioners, then there are advertising requirements. A standalone referendum could be held but would be quite expensive, Morrison advised, but could also be held as part of a regular election. County funds can be spent on educating people about unified government, but the information must be neutral, not favoring one way or the other. 

If public forums are held, elected officials cannot make presentations, but non-elected county officials can, elected officials can voice an opinion, however.