Commissioners represent county’s interests at National Association of Counties DC Conference
Only two counties from western North Carolina were represented at this year's annual Legislative Conference of the National Association of Counties (NACo) held March 5 through 9 in Washington, D.C.: Buncombe and Macon.
Macon County commissioners Ronnie Beale and Bob Kuppers, as well as county manager Jack Horton, all attended the conference which Horton called “very educational and useful.” According to Horton, the conference is an excellent opportunity for county governments to learn and advocate about federal legislative issues which directly impact local governments.
Over 2,000 elected and appointed county officials from across the country attended the conference this year. Members of Congress and key officials addressed attendees during general session presentations. In addition, numerous workshops and breakout sessions allowed county representatives to gain valuable information about federal programs and legislative issues.
At last week's meeting of the board of commissioners, Beale, who attended a number of special workshops, including one on federal support for daycare initiatives, said that the primary topic of conversation during the conference was the forecasted cuts to the federal budget. “What we're concerned with is those cuts and the budget,” said Beale. “Our job is to look out for Macon County and the mandates that are passed down to it.”
Kuppers said he focused on issues of land use and economic development at the conference. He also commented on the critical nature of the budget discussions currently underway in Washington. “Some of the programs that are being hacked on are really programs that benefit Macon County,” he explained, citing Community Development Block Grants as an example of the types of programs currently on the chopping block.
“These kinds of things will really impact local governments,” agreed Horton on Monday. At the same time, such cuts will do little toward actually balancing the federal budget, he said. While many legislators prefer to ignore hot button issues such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Horton says any serious budget discussion must be willing to address these issues.
Horton said he also attended a number of breakout sessions on topics ranging from information technology and telecommunications, to community development and senior services.“What we’re concerned with is those cuts and the budget. Our job is to look out for Macon County and the mandates that are passed down to it.” – Ronnie Beale, Macon County Commissioner
Admiral Mike Mullen of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff was one of the general session speakers at the conference. Mullen's remarks to the county officials concerned the new generation of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the special challenges faced by these veterans and local communities as they return home.
Beale noted that the situation is different for today's veterans than it was for those of the World War II era. “They're not so connected to support groups such as the American Legion or different veteran's organizations,” he explained, noting the alarming suicide rate for service personnel in the National Guard which is currently 10 times that of any other organization. “I think you will see a concerted effort to reach out to these young people,” Beale said.
The county officials also had the opportunity to meet with federal representatives — including Senator Richard Burr (R), Senator Kay Hagan (D), and Congressman Heath Shuler (D) — to discuss local priorities and concerns regarding the current budget negotiations. The county officials all remarked that an extended discussion with Shuler was particularly positive.
Beale said that the discussion attacked important issues, “from the price of gas and where it's going to the mandates that are going to come down from the federal government to the county level.”
“I think we were able to get a lot of time with the Congressman because there were only two counties there,” Kuppers noted. “I think we were pretty straight forward in those discussions about what we needed and what we saw was coming down,” he added.
The annual conference is potentially as valuable for legislators as it is for county officials, Horton remarked. While federal legislators in Washington tend to be sheltered from their constituents and local impacts for federal mandates, county officials can offer them a local perspective.
“This is where the rubber meets the road, where federal programs and services are matched up to the people,” explained Horton.
Beale agrees. “I really believe after leaving Washington that if they had to work like the county commissioners have to work ... if they had to see the people everyday, in the grocery store and the church, the way people can find this group here, it would be very beneficial,” he said at last week’s board meeting.
Beale announces candidacy
At the North Carolina Caucus, held concurrently with the NACo conference, County Commissioner Ronnie Beale officially announced his candidacy for the second vicepresident seat in the North Carolina Association for County Commissioners. A successful bid will give Beale an executive seat on the NCACC board of directors, put him in line for the presidency.
Horton remarked that winning the seat would give Macon County as well as the entire western North Carolina region a greater voice in the organization.