County repeals commute-reduction law

Oct. 31, 2013 @ 06:41 PM

Acting once again in response to a state mandate, County Commissioners this week voted to repeal a 13-year-old ordinance that required large employers to prod their workers to stop commuting alone.

The unanimous vote came two weeks after the commissioners rescinded a policy that required some contractors who do business with the county to pay workers a “living wage.”

Both decisions complied with a statewide “regulatory reform” law Gov. Pat McCrory and fellow Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly put through this summer.

It narrowed the scope of local-government authority, by among other things forbidding them from imposing fees, fines and other mandates on employers to secure their cooperation with commute-reduction programs.

“That bill was just so comprehensive, it’s kind of interesting some of the issues that were included in it,” said Deborah Craig-Ray, assistant county manager and the county’s point person in its dealings with legislators.

Durham County’s “commute trip reduction” ordinance, in place since 2000, fell afoul of the new law because it included a $200 annual fee and threatened a $100-a-week civil penalty for any failure to comply.

It required companies with 100 or more people on staff to survey their workers regularly to find out about their commuting habits; inform them about alternatives to driving to work alone; and report to Triangle Transit on their efforts to promote the use of telecommuting, carpools, vanpools, buses and other commuting options.

The 100-or-more threshold meant the law applied to 82 Durham employers, Triangle Transit officials said.

County and Triangle Transit officials say they’re likely to resurrect the program as an entirely volunteer effort. They credit it with helping push, by 2011, about 21 percent of large-employer commuter traffic into alternatives that don’t involve driving to work solo.

“I think it was pretty effective, surprisingly so,” Triangle Transit General Manager David King said, adding that the program raised awareness about commuting habits.

Also, “some of the folks, some of the more enlightened company representatives, realized that congestion is a real sort of competitive issue in terms of business environment and how happy their employees are going to and from work,” Assistant County Manager Drew Cummings said.

But the county ordinance wasn’t necessarily popular in other portions of the business community.

The Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce would from time to time field complaints about the program from employers who objected to “having to deal with one more piece of red tape,” said John White, the group’s government-affairs director.

The survey, promotional and reporting requirements were particularly hard on companies that “didn’t have a formal [human resources] department,” he said.

For them, it became “something a guy like me or the [chief financial officer] or CEO would have to send out to employees,” White said.

Nonetheless, Triangle Transit officials said the ordinance of late has had a 94 percent compliance rate, and that they and the county provided “information, tools and guidance” to the remaining companies to help them get square.

And since it went into effect in 2000, “no businesses have been fined for non-compliance with the ordinance,” Triangle Transit spokesman Brad Schulz said.

 The fact state legislators opted to address the trip-reduction program suggests they’re willing to bypass community leaders in Durham when drafting legislation that affects the city and county.

White said the chamber – which works closely with the county government on business recruitment – “hadn’t asked for [for a repeal mandate] specifically” in the course of forming its legislative priorities.

County officials likewise had been in the dark. “We actually didn’t notice that piece until the bill was through,” Craig-Ray said.

The General Assembly is majority Republican in both the House and Senate. The regulatory reform bill passed largely on party-line votes.

Durham is 59 percent Democratic by voter registration and even more so in the way it votes. In 2012, McCrory received support from only 26.6 percent of the county’s voters.