Wake budget is tight

The county manager proposes job cuts, mostly in human services, but no change in property tax.

Staff WriterMay 19, 2009 

— A budget for Wake County government released Monday would cut spending, cut jobs, freeze pay raises and keep the property tax rate flat.

County Manager David Cooke's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would decrease county spending about $31 million from what was approved last year by cutting spending in nearly every aspect of local government, including education, libraries and social services.

The county's contribution to the budget for county schools would drop about $3million from what was allocated for 2009. Cooke pointed out that schools would actually get a little more money if one factored in the $5.7 million the school board returned to the county late last year to help cover spending shortfalls.

Cooke's proposed 2010 budget would eliminate 122 full-time positions, all but 20 of which are currently vacant. The county has been in a hiring freeze since the economic crisis hit in the fall.

"All of these efforts have the same goal: to bring expenditures in line with revenues, and to provide Wake County citizens with a budget that is both sustainable and responsible," Cooke told county commissioners. "[The] reductions must be sustainable. The budget problem we are trying to solve is a long-term problem that may last for more than two years."

The employees whose positions are cut could be offered other county jobs deemed more essential, Cooke said.

County employees would get no pay raise, but they would not face furlough, as state government workers have.

The county commissioners will consider Cooke's proposed budget and vote next month, but his proposals appear to have the general support of a majority on the elected board.

Even commissioner Paul Coble, who has voted against previous budgets because they either raised taxes or didn't cut them, said Cooke had it about right.

"We don't know what else is coming," said Coble, a Republican. "Holding the line on the budget this year is appropriate."

Cooke said his proposed cutbacks are necessary to offset declines in sales tax revenue and collected fees caused by the anemic growth in the local economy. The revenue declines have been especially significant for the register of deeds and planning office, county departments heavily reliant on fees paid through real estate sales and new development.

The manager also warned commissioners that matters could get worse, requiring additional cuts next year if the national economy doesn't stabilize.

Public safety effect

Though funding and position cuts are proposed for the sheriff's office and the emergency management services, the manager stressed that he was focusing on areas that would not affect public safety.

"We will not be taking any ambulances off the street, detention officers out of jail or sheriff's deputies out of our schools or neighborhoods," he said.

Cooke's budget would also close two library branches, Athens Drive and Duraleigh, decommission a bookmobile, and roll back service hours throughout the library system.

The county department hardest hit by the job cuts is human services, which will have 65 full-time positions eliminated. Cooke said he wasn't happy about having to make cuts just as rising unemployment and economic hard times are increasing the need for social programs, but he said he saw few options.

Betty Lou Ward, a Democrat, said she was especially troubled by the human services cuts.

"We're seeing people come in asking for help that we've never seen before," she said.

School spending

In past years, Ward has been a force pushing for education spending beyond Cooke's recommendation. She still contends that Wake schools are underfunded but said she was unsure whether she would push for more money in light of the financial crisis.

"I'm looking at it, but this year is so different than any year I've been on the board," said Ward, who has been a commissioner since 1988.

Stan Norwalk, a Democrat elected last year after advocating additional funding for schools, said he still hopes to find a little more money for education. He is worried that coming state budget cuts will be so deep the county will be forced to pick up the slack.

However, Norwalk said he will honor the board's pledge from earlier this year to keep the county's tax rate at 53.4 cents for each $100 of assessed property value. He plans to read Cooke's proposal closely, looking for additional cuts from county departments or planned construction projects to provide more operating money to the school system.

"My bias is to ask for more," Norwalk said, "but I haven't made up my mind yet where it's going to come from."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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