Wake commissioners may spread out impact of school bond tax hike

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 9, 2013 

  • Who’s for new schools?

    Strong support from Raleigh and Cary helped overcome opposition from many of Wake County’s smaller municipalities to pass the $810 million school construction bond issue.

    Most of the precincts in Raleigh and western Wake backed the bonds. Some of the strongest support came in largely Democratic precincts inside the Beltline and in Southeast Raleigh, where many precincts had 70 percent or more voting for the bonds.

    “Raleigh and Cary have historically been supportive of public schools,” said County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, who lives inside the Beltline.

    Opposition from the bonds was strongest in Wake Forest, Rolesville, eastern Wake and Fuquay-Varina. The only item on the ballot Tuesday in those communities, aside from the bond issue, was a school board race. Raleigh and Cary had municipal elections.

    “We knew that the variable was going to be the Cary-Raleigh vote,” said Duane Cutlip, vice president of the East Wake Republican Club, which had campaigned against the bonds.

    Overall, preliminary election returns show, 57.71 percent of voters backed the bond issue. A total of 98,201 people, or 15.3 percent of Wake County’s voters, cast ballots in the referendum.

    Staff writer T. Keung Hui

Wake County voters gave their approval to raise property taxes to pay for building and renovating schools, but now county commissioners are exploring ways to reduce the immediate hit to taxpayers’ wallets.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners will consider in June a tax increase to help pay for the first round of borrowing in the $810 million school construction bond issue that voters approved Tuesday. But rather than imposing a nearly 5-cent tax-rate increase next year, some county commissioners say it may make more sense to spread the tax hike over multiple years.

County finance staff had proposed that taxes go up 4.86 cents per $100 of property value in the 2014-15 budget to pay for the debt costs of the bonds. An additional tax increase of 0.67 cents would be spread out during the next four years to pay for operating the new schools as they open.

But Joe Bryan, chairman of the board of commissioners, said Wednesday the panel will have “serious discussions” about phasing in the 4.86-cent tax increase over multiple years. He said they might be able to raise taxes by only two cents next year to provide the money for the school system’s immediate needs.

Bryan said that he’s hoping the economy will improve enough in the following years that they don’t have to raise all of the remaining 2.86 cents to come up with the money for the bond debt.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have the flexibility to have less of a tax increase than we thought through good management,” he said.

County Manager David Cooke said passing the tax increase in one year would guarantee available funding to keep school construction projects on schedule. He said that phasing in the tax hikes over multiple years wouldn’t knock projects off schedule – as long as commissioners continued to raise taxes in the following years.

“It’s a policy choice,” said Cooke, who is retiring at the end of November. “You can take all the pain at once, or you can spread it out.”

Commissioner Tony Gurley said he, too, would prefer phasing in the tax increase instead of hitting taxpayers with all 4.86 cents at once. That much of an increase would mean $128.06 more per year on a $263,500 home, the average value in Wake.

Next year, all four seats now held by Republican commissioners are on the ballot. Republicans would need to win all four seats to retain control of the seven-member board.

What’s at stake

The bonds would pay for most of a $939.9 million construction program that includes 16 new schools, six major school renovations, smaller repairs at 79 schools, new technology and other projects.

The first installment of the $939.9 million won’t arrive until after the county budget is adopted in June. School officials say they’ll use another pot of money to jump-start projects until the bond dollars become available by fall 2014.

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said the district will resume purchasing land for new schools this month. He said they’re also designing a major renovation at Green Elementary School in Raleigh and five new schools – Scotts Ridge Elementary in Apex, Abbotts Creek Elementary near the North Wake Landfill in Raleigh, a middle school in northwest Raleigh, a high school in Cary and a high school in Garner.

Construction on four of the new schools will begin in next summer or fall, with the elementary schools opening in 2015 and the other schools in 2016, according to Desormeaux.

Desormeaux said construction would begin in February 2015 for the new high school in Cary and the renovations at Green Elementary. During Green’s $22.6 million makeover, students will relocate to a temporary campus on Spring Forest Road in northeast Raleigh. The date of the move hasn’t been made final.

“We’re very happy to get our new school, so we’ll do whatever we need to do,” Green Principal Lisa Brown said.

Desormeaux said the purchase of items such as new technology and the replacement of equipment and furniture would wait until after the bond money is available.

Under the budget scenario developed by county staff, passage of the bonds would result eventually in a 5.53-cent tax increase during a five-year period. That works out to $145.72 more per year on a $263,500 home.

News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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