A month from today, The Pilot will print its annual listing of people who owe Moore County taxes.
The special section is usually 10 or 12 pages of name after name of people who owe back taxes. Some are just a year old but others are chronic.
Moore County is not alone; other counties frequently publish tax liens. Public notice, they’ve found, is an awfully good inducement to receive what they’re owed. Moore County, which usually spends about $8,000, routinely collects 80 percent. In past years, that’s about $800,000 a year for an $8,000 investment — which the late payers also pay.
This is a valuable service we perform for Moore County, and we are both happy with the returns. But for how much longer?
A few state lawmakers — yet again — would rather make political points or punish the media, and have introduced two bills that would take these publications out of local newspapers and publish them on little-seen pages online run by the counties. Their measures are usually done out of spite or retribution for perceived slights — and bereft of business sense.
House Bill 35 and House Bill 51 include two regions. HB 35, proposed by Rep. Harry Warren of Rowan County, seeks to end newspaper public notices for Cabarrus, Catawba, Currituck, Davidson, Forsyth, Haywood, Jackson, Montgomery, Richmond, Rockingham, Rowan, Rutherford, Stanly, and Swain counties and their respective municipalities.
House Bill 51 is sponsored by State Reps. Howard Penny (Harnett), Ed Goodwin (Edenton), Keith Kidwell (Beaufort) and Howard Hunter (Ahoskie). It includes the counties of Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Craven, Gates, Harnett, Hertford, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington and their municipalities.
So, between the two bills, residents in a quarter of the state’s counties — 26 — could see information ranging from tax liens to notice of zoning meetings and other government business disappear from local newspapers. Instead, local governments could stick it most anywhere on their websites, with no good way for residents to find it.
The case is clear in North Carolina and across the country: Local newspapers are in dire straits financially. For some, government notices are an important revenue source. Were this a local business interest that one of these lawmakers supported — maybe a community bank or funeral home — they’d be screaming mad about legislation that penalizes them financially.
No one thinks of a local newspaper as a business until it’s gone, and suddenly no one knows what’s going on in town.
Moore County is not part of this legislation. While we are thankful for that, we fight for our brethren and all of North Carolina’s residents who stand potentially to lose easy access to critical public information.
According to the North Carolina Press Association, 6.6 million N.C. adults turn to local newspapers to read public notices about tax increases, zoning changes, minutes of local government meetings, etc.
Almost three quarters of those surveyed believe state and local governments should be required to publish public notices in newspapers on a regular basis as a service to the community.
“Public notices aren’t government subsidies,” said Phil Lucey, executive director of the N.C. Press Association. “We’re providing a service and we’re paid for that service. Especially now, it’s a time for more transparency, not less.
“This is about striking back at newspapers for doing their job of covering the community,” Lucey said. “Newspapers are small businesses as well. And our business is to inform the public.”
We have successfully fought against such endeavors in the past; such legislation blooms every session like a noxious weed. The lawmakers say it’s about convenience for the governments and saving money.
Bull. It makes financial sense, or maybe an 80,000 percent return — Moore County’s typical net return on the tax liens publication — isn’t worth it.
But the publishing of public information is also important to open and good government. Let our lawmakers know publication of public information is important — before it’s too late.