RALEIGH — For the first time in three years, Wake County is crafting a budget without the looming certainty of cuts in programs and personnel, county commissioners learned Friday.
In fact, if projections hold up, the county's operating budget for the year starting July 1 should have a surplus of some $4.8 million, County Manager David Cooke said at a commissioners retreat at the RBC Center.
But along with the news of a potential small surplus in a nearly $1 billion budget came a pile of demands and requests for ways to spend that money, along with other revenue perhaps to be gleaned from bonds or sales taxes. Chief among the possible beneficiaries were public schools, transit and Wake Technical Community College.
Chairman Paul Coble argued that the budget should be crafted from the start assuming no increase in the property tax rate of 53.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. Commissioners will vote on that goal Feb. 7.
Any major capital spending, Coble said, should go toward expanding Wake Tech, with its job-creating training programs.
"When it comes up to capital, I think it's fair to say that Wake Tech is a priority," he said. "They've got a plan. That should be on the front edge."
He said commissioners couldn't consider any capital spending for schools because the school system hadn't proposed any. A bond for schools construction, long discussed as a possibility for the November ballot, probably won't go before voters until spring 2013, Cooke said.
Coble and fellow Republican member Tony Gurley, both seeking higher office and facing voters in the May primary, gave no encouragement to Democrats Erv Portman and Betty Lou Ward on transit. Portman spoke up for a referendum this fall on a half-cent sales tax increase in Wake for a multifaceted transit plan.
"We don't have a plan; we have a concept," Coble said, noting that Wake County is still making presentations to each of the 12 municipalities that also must sign off on the plan.
Democrat James West argued that the board faces a "perception problem" that was becoming reality as it keeps the schools budget roughly flat despite thousands of new students who have entered the system during the past three years.
Commissioners were presented with other needs that could benefit from the additional money in the budget, including new precincts for the Board of Elections, Wake's animal shelter and additional beds for patients at the county's Wakebrook behavioral health facility.