July 05, 2012As they say, breaking up is hard to do, and apparently that applies not just to couples who have been married for a long time – but also to local governments that have a long history together.
After a one-year breakup with the regional Council of Government (COG) association of local governments – which, before the break, Guilford County had been involved with for 40 years – the county has decided to get back together with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council (PTRC).
PTRC is part of a system of associations of municipal and county governments that was created by federal and state legislation. Federal legislation established the program in the 1960s and, in 1972, the North Carolina General Assembly created the state COGs to promote regional cooperation among members as well as to address regional concerns.
With Guilford County rejoining the council on July 1, PTRC will have 74 member governments including 12 counties: Alamance, Caswell, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Montgomery, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin.
Last July, the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments (NPCOG) and the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments (PTCOG) merged to form the PTRC.
As those two organizations joined, Guilford County opted out of the new group – over strong objections from Commissioner Bill Bencini and a minority of Guilford County commissioners.
Some commissioners wanted "weighted voting" in the new association of governments – that is, they wanted large members, such as Guilford County, to have more say than smaller members that paid much less in membership dues.
Other commissioners added that it was unfair that the county paid, in some cases, 20 times the dues other members paid to be a member.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman was on the board of the PTCOG and was in line to be the head of the merged COG. She was upset when she was left off a committee set up to handle the transition.
"I felt I had been disrespected – well, not me but Guilford County," Coleman said.
Several representatives of the COG said they never intended to disrespect Coleman or Guilford County. However, they added, she was facing health issues at that time, which meant she had to miss many of the meetings, or attend by phone – and, they said, those negotiations really needed to be handled in face to face talks.
There was also a feeling among many Guilford County commissioners last summer that the county might be able to save money by leaving the group. Guilford County's dues are over $100,000 annually, and some officials said they thought the county could rather easily take over the major service that the COG provided Guilford County – the administration of a large adult care federal program.
County officials talked about possibly hiring new staff to handle the administration of that contract and also discussed giving the duties to existing staff – however, in the end Guilford County simply ended up contracting out the service to the newly merged COG at a cost of $54,000 a year.
Coleman said that, recently, before Guilford County passed its 2012-2013 budget, she met with Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston, County Manager Brenda Jones Fox and representatives of the PTRC.
Coleman said those talks led to a meeting of the minds, and the commissioners and PTRC representatives worked through some issues, and the discussions helped mend fences over the spat last year between Guilford County government and the COG.
"Brenda and Skip said the county wouldn't join unless I made the recommendation," Coleman said.
Coleman added that PTRC representatives told her, Fox and Alston that there had been "a big misunderstanding" last spring before Guilford County decided to pull out.
Coleman will be the Guilford County commissioner who represents the county on the PTRC board. However, Coleman is no longer the person in line to head up the merged COG, as she was before Guilford County pulled out.
When Guilford County adopted its 2012-2013 county budget on Thursday, June 7, the commissioners added $46,500 to the $54,000 already in the budget for COG services to fund membership dues. The cost of membership is based on population: Dues are 21 cents per resident, with a minimum payment of $550. Guilford County's annual membership will be $102,565 (slightly over what the county budgeted for that purpose this year) while some small cities and towns just pay a 1/186 of that amount.
Several Guilford County officials said the county was already paying the $54,000 annually, so it made sense to pay the difference and be a member once again. When commissioners are asked what the county will get for the additional $46,000 and change, they have a hard time coming up with specifics. Guilford County, as a large county, pays more in dues and also has many departments that perform services offered by the COGs. For instance, the PTRC offers planning consultation services that can be very beneficial to a small town, paying $550 a year in dues. However, Guilford County already has an entire Planning and Development Department that performs those functions
Last year the majority of the board voted to leave the COG and they argued, aside from administering the large federal adult health contract, the county does not use COG services. The 2011-2012 budget, when Guilford County was not a member, does not seem to contain any additional money to cover expenses for services the COG was providing Guilford County.
Others say that Guilford County does get added value for being a full member of the organization: For instance, it sometimes plays a role in franchise contracts, such as cable television services that may affect a region, and it also plays a role in regional transportation initiatives that help reduce traffic and air pollution, advocates say.
The county's membership is also seen as an act of cooperation from Guilford County, which was important to the COG: 73 out of 74 eligible members had joined the merged COG. Before the merger, the COGs were used to seeing full participation by all eligible counties, cities and towns. Now, at least, cities like Yadkin and King will see Guilford County as more of a team player, but it's not clear if that's worth $46,000 or not.
Commissioner Paul Gibson said he felt spending the extra money was worth it, though he said there didn't appear to be any huge negative consequences when Guilford County went a year without being a member.
"The county didn't wither up and blow away when we pulled out," Gibson said.
But he added that he felt regional cooperation in both spirit and action was important, and he said he thought that rejoining the COG would be a good move for Guilford County. He said that the county has to work together with other local governments on regional issues and being part of the association should make that easier.
PTRC Finance Director Robin Shelton said that Guilford County's participation was missed during the year that the county was away.
"They are a vital part of our organization," she said.
High Point Councilmember Latimer Alexander, who serves on the executive council of the PTRC, said he's not surprised to see Guilford County back in the fold. It was the only one of 74 eligible governments that didn't join, he said.
"The COG performs a lot of useful services," he said.
Alexander said that, since Guilford County was already paying the lion's share of a membership fee to administer the federal contract, it didn't make sense for the county not to have access to any of the other COG services, not have a vote in regional matters, and to be the odd lone wolf out.
According to Alexander, the PTRC provides members useful planning services, helps coordinate regional initiatives and serves the populations of the member towns, cities and counties with other advisory functions as well. For instance, he said, the group provides consultation and services that promote clean air and water.
"They do a lot of regional work," Alexander said.
He said that, when Guilford County pulled out of the COG last June, the move didn't benefit either Guilford County or PTRC.
"It wasn't a positive thing," he said.
He said that he and Bencini were part of the transition team during the merger and he said he didn't feel that either of them thought Coleman was mistreated during the merger.
"I saw nothing except complete respect for Miss Coleman," Alexander said.
He said that, because of Guilford County's exit just before the two groups merged, the COG's new expanded headquarters is in Forsyth County rather than in Guilford County. He said that the new merged PTRC has a staff of about 30 that eats and shops in the area surrounding the office.
"Guilford County lost out on the economic impact of the COG operations," Alexander said.