Should county tax dollars be used to pay for two state positions? That’s the question Johnston County Commissioners must decide. In January 2021, commissioners agreed to temporarily pay for two full-time positions in the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office through June 30, 2021 after temporary state funding expired on December 31, 2020.
In January, at the request of District Attorney Susan Doyle, commissioners agreed to temporarily fund one Assistant District Attorney’s position and one Legal Assistant position. The NC Administrative Office of the Courts had provided the temporary positions due to increased workloads and backlogs due to COVID-19. The funds ran out but the workload didn’t. Johnston County current has 10 assistant district attorney’s and 6 legal assistants.
The temporary funding ends June 30, 2021. After standing funding fell through in the new fiscal year, commissioners have now been asked to fund the positions beginning July 1st in their 2021-2022 fiscal year budget. The board discussed the funding issue last week.
“I know there is some opposition and I don’t disagree with that,” Commissioner Patrick Harris said during a June 7th meeting. “I agree it should be state funded positions and like many of the other things we have discussed over a period of time there are a lot of state funded positions that should be happening but are not and are left on our doorstep to deal with. I think this is another one of those things…”
Commissioner Fred Smith said, “When this came up earlier, I was the sole commissioner who to vote against this. Clearly this is a state responsibility… Johnston County has already paid for it once and now we’re being asked to pay for it twice. At that time I said there was a feeling, we’ll just approve this temporarily, and I said that’s like the camel with its nose in the tent. It will come back again and that clearly is happening.”
“I think we owe it to the taxpayers of Johnston County to make sure that … we force our citizens to pay taxes for a legitimate public purpose and its clearly within the responsibility of us as county commissioners. And when we use those funds that we have taken from our citizens for purposes for which we are not charged to do, I think we violate our duty. I am very much opposed to this. The State has plenty of time, plenty of notice to fund and make it their responsibility. it is not our responsibility for the dysfunctional situation in Raleigh where they can’t get a budget passed,” Smith added.
Chairman Chad Stewart replied, “I can’t disagree with you but it’s also our responsibility to use tax dollars to make sure they get speedy and adequate services at our District Attorney’s office. So that is kind of a double-edged sword.”
Commissioner Tony Braswell stated, “I can’t disagree with Commissioner Smith and he brings a very valid point. But therein lies the question, okay what should we do? What is the answer? We know they (the State) are not going to do it. I don’t have any hopes they will even have a budget this year… It begs to question what do you do? What is the answer?”
Commissioner Ted Godwin said, “Well you wonder how we go to where we are paying $75 million to the school system for a function that really is the General Assembly’s responsibility. We are responsible for capital needs, buildings. And now it has evolved over probably a need like this years and years ago. It is a slippery slope. I can see both sides of the argument but I tend to agree with Commissioner Smith, if we start down this slope I only see it getting steeper and faster.”
Chairman Stewart responded, “I can’t disagree, but once again it’s our job to support the school system, the courthouse and other services to provide adequate and speedy services.”
Mr. Godwin stated, “Yea, but we’ve got bad roads coming out here. But we’re not going to patch those.”
Chairman Stewart replied, “If we had the money we would.”
Commissioner Harris stated, “I think there is valid arguments on both sides, but I think what it boils down to is probably what got us started with the school system years ago in funding some of those positions is the dedication and commitment to serving our local citizens. And if Raleigh is not going to do it then the County has stepped up and has continued to serve the citizens of our county, which is what we are charged to do. And I think this is one of those things where we can, we can go either way with, and I think there is a justification for both, but then are we taking away from our responsibility to adequately and expediently serve the citizens of Johnston County.”
Commissioner Smith responded, “We are a nation of laws and what we do in this role is prescribed by the laws of the State of North Carolina. And I challenge you to show me where there is any statute or any law in North Carolina that makes it our responsibility to fund the issue we are talking about now. There are all kinds of good purposes we can take people’s money and use it for. There are non-profits doing good work, a lot of good work, but that doesn’t make it our responsibility to pay for. We owe it to our citizens to use their money for what the laws says we need to use it for.”
Chairman Stewart asked Mr. Smith, “Do you think the citizens would mind you using some of their money for some of the non-profits we’ve heard from today?”
Smith replied, “I personally agree with what the county commissioners in Harnett County did and they agreed to fund no non-profits. In Harnett County, commissioners voted last month not to fund any non-profits and I think personally that’s the right answer. But I know that practically that would be a tough vote for us to take. But there is no responsibility for the State of North Carolina to fund non-profits. There is a responsibility for the State of North Carolina to fund the judicial system.”
On Tuesday, District Attorney Susan Doyle told Johnston County Report, “As our state continues to grow, District Attorneys across North Carolina have had to find other funding sources to keep up with the growing demands placed upon our offices. While our positions are typically state funded, the legislature has to meet the needs of all agencies statewide, and sometimes there is just not enough funding for every agency.”
“There are currently fifteen District Attorney’s Offices in North Carolina receiving county funded positions. For example, Union County which is similar in size and growth to Johnston County, has had two county funded positions for over twelve years. As the Elected District Attorney for Johnston County for the past fourteen years, I have never asked the county to fund positions for my office. However, as Johnston has continued to be one of the fastest growing counties in the state, finding alternative means of funding has become not only necessary, but paramount in the performance of my office’s duties in regards to the pursuit of justice for victims. I understand the concerns that some commissioners have when it comes to this funding, but I appreciate their service in support of our common goal of a safer Johnston County,” Doyle said.
In January, Fred Smith was the only county commissioner to vote against spending $62,682 to temporarily fund the two district attorney positions through June 30, 2021. He did not question the need but reiterated it was a state agency and not a county department.
The board will likely decide at their June 21, 2021 budget workshop if they will fund the two district attorney positions beginning July 1st. If they do, it will cost Johnston County taxpayers approximately $124,160 annually.