The annual fiscal wrangle between Wake County’s governing bodies ground to a halt Monday as the Board of Commissioners approved a $1.26 billion budget on a 5–2 vote, bumping up the schools’ allocation by $5 million over the county manager’s recommendation to provide $430.9 million in local funding.
Commissioner Matt Calabria, who moved to include the extra $5 million, acknowledged that Wake County schools would still lag beyond many other counties in the state even with the increase.
Use of a recent $1.5 million rise in sales tax revenues and transfers from debt service and capital funds meant that the property tax increase needed to fund the budget could remain at 1.45 cents per $100 in assessed value. That’s the rate recommended by county manager Jim Hartmann in his budget proposal.
While receiving less than the school board’s request for a $45 million increase, Wake schools will get $21 million in new funding.
“We certainly have a long way to go,” Calabria said. “We have done a great deal, but we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Commissioners Greg Ford and Jessica Holmes—a former principal and an attorney with the N.C. Association of Educators, respectively—voted against the budget and opposed Calabria’s motion as insufficient to meet the growing system’s needs. Ford referred to Calabria’s funding mechanisms as “sleight of hand.”
“I cannot support this budget because it doesn’t go far enough to support education,” Holmes said.
School board member Jim Martin, attending the the county commission meeting along with colleague Kathy Hartenstine, called the budget disappointing.
“The big picture is that it’s a status quo budget,” Martin said. “It just meets growth and inflation. It’s a subsistence budget.”
Commissioner John Burns pointed out, as Hartmann had in his initial presentation, that the budget would represent the fourth straight year of county property tax increases.
Board chairman Sig Hutchinson voted for the deal on the basis of keeping the tax increase down, as did Burns, Calabria, Erv Portman, and James West. All emphasized their support for the schools.
“I believe in my manager and I believe in his proposal,” West said, calling the $5 million only a start on funding the schools adequately. “One thing that I have observed is the lack of true community engagement.”
Portman said the county should not raise the tax rate every year without solving long-running problems and should seek a longer-term means of funding. In a separate, successful motion, Calabria asked for a better working relationship between the commission and the school board, a route he said would help forestall the annual brouhahas between the two panels.
The school board had requested a $45 million increase in funding, citing needs including counselors, new schools, improved salaries, and a beefed-up office of equity affairs to help deal with a recent spate of racial conflicts.
A central disagreement between the panels concerned the school board’s practice of holding over money from year to year to deal with emergencies. Hartmann said the schools should spend their reserves and rely on the commissioners to help with unanticipated needs. Hartmann’s budget proposed that a $16 million allocation from the county be supplemented with $21 million in held-over funds, an amount that would require a 1.45-cent property tax increase.
Martin, in particular, has vehemently opposed the county manager’s suggestion about using reserves, saying after the meeting that it doesn’t meet accepted accounting standards. “That extra money is mythical,” Martin told the INDY. “It doesn’t exist.”
Cecelia Joyce, a teacher at Hunter Elementary School, called the budget insufficient to meet the system’s needs. “It’s not enough,” Joyce said. “To blame it on the state is not acceptable.”
Commissioners also approved:
- $80,000 to keep three libraries in underserved areas open on Sundays,
- $50,000 in funding for Legal Aid, and
- $25,000 to keep residents of the Forest Hills Apartments in Garner from becoming homeless as the complex’s owner closes it down.
In other action, commissioners voted to pay Alliance Behavioral Healthcare as much as up to $13.59 million to manage services for people in Wake County with mental health problems, developmental disability, and substance abuse. The approved funding is to cover functions including crisis services at Holly Hill Hospital, outpatient and specialty treatment programs, criminal justice system support, residential programs and support, community support programs, recovery programs, and administrative fees.