The Orange County Board of Commissioners tentatively approved a budget Thursday giving $5.4 million more to schools next year – more than initially proposed but $2.8 million less than requested.
The $242.3 million 2016-17 budget includes a general fund, or operating, budget of $215.8 million. It uses $12.5 million from the county’s fund balance – an account use to manage cash flow throughout the year and for emergencies – to cover an expected shortfall and boost schools.
The board is expected to approve the final budget Tuesday without raising property tax rates. The county tax rate will remain 87.8 cents per $100 in property value, generating a $2,634 county tax bill for the owner of property valued at $300,000. (See the latest from Tuesday’s meeting at chapelhillnews.com.)
The budget raises the local amount paid per student by $170.50 to $3,868, and includes $2.8 million to fully fund 736 charter school students. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will receive $46.4 million; the Orange County Schools will receive $30.8 million.
The money includes about $3.4 million next year to put nurses in every school and a school resource officer in every middle and high school. The school districts also receive state and federal funding.
Commissioner Mia Burroughs pushed for a 0.6 percent tax increase to meet another $1.6 million in school needs. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board already approved raises and will have to find cuts to afford that decision, she said. County district teachers aren’t guaranteed more money, but the commissioners have heard how some are working two jobs to make ends meet, she said.
Burroughs and Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier supported the increase, but it failed 5-2.
Commissioners Renee Price, Penny Rich and Chairman Earl McKee said they couldn’t support higher taxes when fees are rising and a $125 million bond for schools and affordable housing, if approved by voters in November, could prompt future increases. County officials also don’t know how the 2017 property revaluation will affect the tax rate.
“Raising taxes to me is a last resort,” Price said. “It may be true there’s no property tax increase, but there have been taxes via the Article 46 (sales tax) and we’ve also had the increase in fees for recycling. People are feeling that type of a hit.”
The schools have asked for an increase every year for the last six years, McKee said, but never offered to cut their requests by even a small amount. That would have changed the tenor of a recent joint meeting to discuss school budgets, he said.
“That night started off very very confrontational, and it got a little better, but it didn’t get a lot better,” McKee said. “It made us all uncomfortable. It put this board in the position of feeling like we’re against the wall, and it put the schools in a position of feeling like they have to be impressive. I think the discussion between this board and the schools needs to be more of discussion than ask and stonewall.”
Next year’s budget also will maintain the school district tax that Chapel Hill and Carrboro property owners pay at 20.84 cents per $100 in property value, costing the owner of a $300,000 home an extra $625.20 in taxes. County property owners don’t pay the tax.
The commissioners funded the increase for schools with $1.8 million from the fund balance and $1 million from impact fees, which are paid every time a new residential unit is built to help build schools. The commissioners will use the $1 million for next year’s school construction debt payments and return money designated for those costs to the districts’ operating budgets.
Next year’s fund balance will fall just short of the county’s target of reserving at least 17 percent of its operating budget. The board could take a look this fall at reducing that target, which Commissioner Mark Dorosin called “overly conservative.”
“I think it’s better public policy not to just be unnecessarily hording savings when we have critical needs in this county – not just in schools, but across the county,” he said.
The commissioners also:
▪ Approved a 3 percent pay raise for all county employees – 2 percent in July and another 1 percent in January – and nearly 11 new positions
▪ Raised the county’s living wage for its own employees from $12.76 an hour to $13.15 an hour
▪ Left the solid waste fee at $107 for all county residents
▪ Approved higher fire tax rates for homeowners in the New Hope and Orange Grove fire department districts. The rates are going up a half-cent and a penny, respectively, to 10.45 cents and 7 cents per $100 in property value.
▪ Voted to launch a $50,000 Orange Connect scholarship program to help 50 local high school graduates attend two years at Durham Technical Community College and approved more money for local nonprofits.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, in the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.