Saturday, April 13, 2013

In North Carolina … Strawberry Festival is a time to forget politics

I’ve been caught up lately in local politics … that is covering local politics in North Carolina as local governments prepare their Fiscal Year 2013-14 budgets.

Politics or strawberries?
It’s not been easy for small towns in the county I cover for the Duplin Times newspaper, a weekly that has a circulation of about 5,800. Duplin County has a population of around 60,000 and its largest city – Wallace – comes in just short of 6,000 people.

Politicians in the state capital – Raleigh – and in the U.S. capital – Washington, D.C. – have been in a cutting binge since just after the Great Recession. Here in North Carolina, Republicans rule in Raleigh with Pat McCrory as governor and both legislative houses in the GOP’s hands. It’s what the voters want … they made that clear when they told gays to forget about ever getting married or enjoying civil unions in North Carolina.

With all the political changes going on in Raleigh, towns like Wallace are trying to figure out how they’re going to revitalize their downtowns, pay for sewer and water improvements, attract new industries and jobs, and build parks and greenways. You see they’ve become use to getting 50/50 matching grants from the state as well as loans to pay for infrastructure and other improvements.

Strawberries -- Taste to savor
There really doesn’t seem to be any way out of higher taxes. Cut federal taxes, cut state taxes, but roads still need to be paved and maintained, people still need to drink clean water, rivers and lakes still need to be clean for fishing and swimming. That means the taxes will come from the local level through higher property taxes, higher local sales taxes, higher gross receipts taxes on local businesses, higher utility bills, high tap fees. Otherwise, water systems and wastewater treatment systems can’t be upgraded and expanded, and that stops growth – no new residential neighborhoods, no new factories and plants.

Sometimes I don’t think local politicians see the writing on the wall – to use a worn, tired metaphor. National and state politicians are passing the buck to mayors, councilmen and county commissioners.

Strawberries and optimism
Wallace was hoping to build a regional park around a 19th century gristmill and sawmill. But with expected cutback in state grants to purchase land, the park may not happen – unless more local funding sources can be found.

So when the town councils like the one in Wallace seek tax increases, what are the local citizens going to say. Will they say: “We understand. We too want parks and jobs and clean-tasting water.” Or will they rebel at new taxes and accept pothole streets, foul-tasting water, bridges that collapse, and closed parks?

In a month, Wallace will be holding its third annual Carolina Strawberry Festival. It’s brings locals and tourists to the downtown for a two-day party with lots of strawberries, barbecue, shag and beach music, and recipe contests. It’s a time for optimism, so hopefully the party poopers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. won’t spoil people’s spirits.