County approves budget… now what?

School jobs saved, but “ridiculous” tax cut draws ire of some

by Mike Parks

It’s the tale of two budgets for the Union County Board of Commissioners – depending on which commissioner you’re listening to at the time.

Here’s one way to look at things: the county is saving hundreds of teacher assistant jobs in Union County Public Schools; it’s adding more staff to the sheriff’s office to increase public safety; it’s hiring someone to get more money locked up for county road improvements – and it’s doing all that while giving residents a half-cent tax cut.

Another way to look at it? Commissioners are playing a dangerous game of political brinkmanship that ties school system jobs to what one commissioner calls a “ridiculous” tax cut while doing nothing to prepare for the bounty of capital improvements Union County needs to be working on, positions that need to be filled and upgrades that vitally need to be made to town equipment and departments. All while draining the county’s safety net.

But the main two issues at the June 21 vote were what they’ve been throughout the budget process: cutting taxes vs. funding schools, and what this year’s vote will mean for next year and further down the road.

County commissioners voted 3 to 2 last week to approve the 2012-13 fiscal budget and decrease the county property tax rate a half cent to 66 cents per $100 of taxable property.  The budget includes general fund expenditures of nearly $227 million, not including $1.65 million the county will give UCPS to help save teacher assistant jobs.

That money will add to cash the county expects to get from the state to pay for roughly 295 assistant jobs, according to county board estimates. But commissioners were torn, and remain so until the state’s budget is actually approved, over if the legislature will actually provide that money or if the county should play it safe and foot the entire assistants bill now to make sure those jobs are saved.

Earlier this budget season, the school system announced some 350 assistant jobs would be cut as a result of a $9.6 million budget shortfall predicted by the school board over what the system needs to operate. That kicked off a fight that continued into last week, with parents and school staff sometimes begging, sometimes demanding that the county cover the cost of keeping the assistants, and members of the county board arguing that it’s not their responsibility.

“(There’s) accusations that we weren’t listening, that we weren’t hearing … I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the state, the county (and) the federal government is broke,” Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said at the June 21 budget vote. “And it’s difficult sitting in this particular seat with so many worthy causes (we’re) looking at this time of the year for funding and us having limited resources of which we have to allocate. That’s the hard part.”

Added Commissioner Jerry Simpson, “It’s not our responsibility to provide that money.”

Commissioners voted to give the school system $1.65 million that could save the remaining assistant jobs, as well as $4 million for school capital projects and $2.2 million for operating expenses. But that increase isn’t nearly enough, two commissioners say, when the county should be raising taxes to fund things like supporting area schools.

“If you look at just the growth alone in our student population, and you take the dollar per student … $1,936 … you multiply that by the approximately 3,500 students that we’ve grown over the periods of flat funding … that’s $6.7 million,” Commissioner Kim Rogers said of how much the system would need if funded for recent student growth. “If you add on the projection for next school year, 600 students, that’s another $1.1 million. So, just to fund the growth alone, that’s $7.9 million. This budget is looking at $2.2 million” in increases to the system’s operating expenses.

Commissioner Tracy Kuehler pushed the board to pay the entire cost needed to save the assistant jobs – some $6.7 million – in case Gov. Bev. Perdue vetoes the state’s budget and Union County doesn’t get the money it expects from Raleigh. Then, if the system gets that money, it would use it to pay the county back. That proposal was voted down in favor of spending just the $1.65 million and trusting the state to come through with the rest.

The other part of this budget, the half-cent tax decrease, is something commissioners Thomas, Johnson and Simpson say is taking a step in the right direction toward fulfilling a promise to voters.

“I promised the citizens a tax cut, and by golly they’re going to get one,” Johnson said before voting on the budget. “Can we cut more next year? I don’t know, we’ll just have to see. We’ll take it one step at a time.”

What’s a promise to one group of commissioners is irresponsible to the other group. Kuehler and Rogers both advocated increasing property taxes to pay for what they deem vital infrastructure and school improvements, though neither made a motion to increase the tax rate.

“We are giving a half-cent tax cut and balancing the budget by taking that same amount of money basically out of the savings account to balance that budget,” Kuehler said. “And I know promises were made to cut taxes because there was ‘waste’ but taking money out of the savings account to balance the budget to give a tax cut is not reducing government – it’s reducing the savings account of the county (needed) so it can build the jail, it can build the Union Village and it can fund the schools in the future.”

Kuehler said commissioners voting for the cut were doing so knowing they were forfeiting the chance to improve an aging fleet of county vehicles, public facilities, parks, libraries and more all for the sake of being able to say, “‘I promised (a tax cut), it’s gonna make me feel good, I’m gonna give a half-cent tax cut. Next year we’re starting in a hole, and two years from now we’ve got to do a (property revaluation) but hey, I won’t be in office, that won’t be my problem.’”

Kuehler added, “It’s not right to tie the teacher funding to a budget that (is) giving all those things that you’re giving up just so you can say (you gave) a half-cent tax cut.”

Thomas said he hears these concerns, but there’s only so much the county can do at a time when residents are already struggling.

“We’ll never have enough money,” he said, referring to projects people would like to see. “I’ve said it from the get-go. We’ll never have enough money to do everything. But what we’ve got, we got to do what we can with and I can assure you this budget … maximizes the monies that we have to make the greatest impact on our community and that’s what we’re elected for.

“We’re not elected to placate to any particular group or side or change positions based on political whims, we are elected to do what’s right and this budget is what’s right. It stretches the money as far as we can…”

Kuehler and Rogers counter that, if there’s not enough money to pay for vital projects, then why decrease taxes and have even less money on hand to spend?

“If we’re broke and we can’t fund the schools and we can’t fund fire departments and we can’t fund the police and we can’t fund our capital programs, why are we looking at a half-cent tax cut?” Rogers asked. “I can’t support it. I won’t support it.  We’re setting up future boards of commissioners for failure and a huge tax increase that’s going to come.”

The county had to pass a budget by the end of June, otherwise an emergency spending measure would be put in place to fund the operation of government until a full budget was passed. If the state doesn’t come through with money for teachers assistants, board members say it’s an issue they could readdress at their July meeting.

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