- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - As the Richmond County Board of Education waits for state lawmakers to cough up more than $272,000 in traffic fine money that a court awarded last year, more than 80 other boards are pressing for a share of the multi-million dollar revenue stream that’s been generated by the $50 fine.

The money comes from a fine for an improper equipment offense, such as dangerous tires or a broken speedometer. A 2011 law says the proceeds, now totaling more than $49 million, should go to a state fund for inmate costs. However, the state Appeals Court ruled last year that under North Carolina’s Constitution the proceeds must go to public schools, not jail costs.

The Richmond County school board sued over the proceeds in 2012. The board’s attorney says the state now owes the board more than $272,000.

“It would be unprecedented that the Legislature did not pay in full money to a local board of education ordered by the courts for a constitutional violation,” said the attorney, George Crump.

Another 81 boards of education have filed complaints over the fine, according to a court ruling last month.

Complicating matters is a three-year statute of limitations, meaning boards of education could only collect proceeds dating back three years from when they filed a complaint, Crump said. He added, however, that Richmond County sued in time to recoup all its money.

The chief budget writer for the House said legislators will discuss how much money to return and to whom when the General Assembly session starts Monday.

“I think what the General Assembly will do, we’re going to thoroughly review what our options are and what our requirements need to be and will work to make sure we are resolving the issue so that everybody can move forward and understand what the parameters will be,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake. “Those specific decisions haven’t been made at this time.”

In 2011, legislators passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which sent revenue from the improper equipment citation to the State Confinement Fund, which pays counties to house some misdemeanor offenders in their jails.

“We are mindful that the General Assembly has affixed the label ‘cost’ to this surcharge, suggesting that it is remedial,” the Appeals Court wrote in September. But the court said the charge is a fine, not a cost, because the money isn’t used to reimburse the state for expenses that develop from improper equipment violations and instead goes toward housing prisoners.

The case began when Crump represented a client in court on an improper equipment charge. Crump thought the money should go to the schools and not to the state fund. The Richmond County board then decided to sue.

The Richmond County board has emailed legislators, encouraging them to pay the money to the schools, Crump said this week. Earlier this month, the board also passed a resolution urging that the state pay.

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at https://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner

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