Wake County residents will likely have to pay a higher property tax rate for the fourth year in a row to keep up with growth, but critics say leaders shouldn’t keep asking taxpayers to dig deeper into their pockets.
Residents can voice their opinions on a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year during public hearings at 2 p.m. at the Wake County Justice Center and 7 p.m. Monday at the Wake County Commons Building.
County Manager Jim Hartmann’s proposed budget calls for raising the property tax rate by 1.45 cents to 61.5 cents per $100 in value, costing a typical homeowner an additional $39.
County leaders say they need the expected $20.8 million in new revenue from a tax hike to maintain services and to raise pay for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, recruit paramedics and fund community health programs.
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Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said Wake is growing fast but leaders need to find ways to curb spending.
“The answer is not to simply throw more money at everything and raise taxes,” he said. “If we keep doing that, we’ll simply become the places these newcomers have fled.”
Hellwig said Wake’s leadership needs some “voices of reason.”
“Without that, we’re going to keep up this cycle of spend and tax until it is unsustainable and the reasons people want to move here cease to exist,” he said.
Hartmann is proposing a $1.26 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That’s an increase of $61.4 million from the current year. Wake’s Board of Commissioners is expected to adopt a budget June 19.
The board has raised the property tax rate each year since Democrats took control after the 2014 election. It also raised taxes the prior year, when Republicans held a majority on the board.
Commissioner Matt Calabria said he has heard from some residents who are concerned about rising taxes and funding for the school system.
The board is in “listening mode” and eager to hear what people have to say Monday, he said.
“We want to consider the teacher who’s not getting paid what she’s worth, and the resident on a fixed income who’s struggling to pay taxes,” Calabria said. “We want to look at the whole picture.”
Lowest in the Triangle
Wake has a significantly lower property tax rate among Triangle counties and also counties that contain North Carolina’s other large cities.
Durham County leaders are considering raising the tax rate from 74.4 cents per $100 in value to 77.04 cents. Franklin County, to the north of Wake, has a property tax rate of 92.5 cents.
Forsyth County, home of Winston-Salem, has a rate of 73.1 cents.
Mecklenburg County (home of Charlotte) has a tax rate of 81.57 cents per $100 in value. That’s more than 20 cents higher than Wake County’s current rate.
New residents moving to Wake boost revenue through taxes. Wake expects revenue from sales tax to increase 6 percent in the coming year. Property taxes account for nearly 70 percent of the county’s revenue.
“Our existing revenue is growing, but it’s not enough to address the increasing demands on the services we’re required to deliver and the services the public expects us to provide,” Hartmann wrote in his budget message. “When we look at our revenue sources, the primary one we have direct control over is the property tax.”
Paul Fitts, a Raleigh-based mortgage lender, said the Triangle is attractive to newcomers partly because its cost of living is lower compared with many other metropolitan areas. By raising taxes, he said, Wake runs the risk of pushing people away.
“We’re attractive now, but in a couple years we’re not gonna be the pretty girl at the dance anymore,” said Fitts, 48.
Robb Ward said the recession, and then rising tax rates, forced him to close his clothing store in Raleigh’s Cameron Village in 2012. Now he works as a real-estate broker at Clayton-based HTR Commercial, and he hopes Wake won’t raise taxes again.
“It was the taxes that pretty much made me decide to take a different route in life,” Ward said. “Taxes have always been tough on small businesses.”
Former Wake commissioner Phil Matthews of Garner, who served on the board from 2010 to 2014, said he’s opposed to raising the property tax rate. He said the county should consider raising the sales tax and scrutinize the school system’s spending instead.
“The county is taxing people to death,” Matthews said. “It just keeps adding up, and they need to consider whether they’re spending money wisely.”
Wake’s biggest expense is education – 56 percent of the proposed budget would go to county schools and Wake Tech Community College.
The school system would get an increase of $16 million under the county manager’s plan, roughly a third of the $45.2 million school leaders asked for. Hartmann said schools should bridge the funding gap by using the $21 million in unused local funds the district expects to have left over after this year’s budget.
Supporters of the school system are lobbying people to contact commissioners and to show up at Monday’s budget hearings to back the school budget request.
The leadership of the Wake County PTA Council forwarded commissioners a resolution supporting fully funding the $45.2 million request.
The Great Schools in Wake Coalition and its parent group, WakeUP Wake County, are asking commissioners to provide the school system with a $38 million increase.
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools, said $38 million is needed to keep up with growth and to provide needed services such as more school counselors and social workers and new themes at magnet schools.
“We’ve got a wonderful Wake County Public School System,” said Brannon, a former Wake commissioner. “We’ve got to keep focused on our goal and our mission of graduating 95 percent of our kids on to meaningful lives.
Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake principal, tweeted that “underfunding” the school system by only providing one-third of the requested increase would go against his values and his campaign promises. He was elected in November.
“The #WakeBOC is Wake citizens’ last line of defense in GOP’s War on Public Ed,” Ford tweeted Monday. “We must do better than fund just 1/3 of #WCPSS’s FY18 needs.”
In addition to schools, the proposed budget calls for spending more on public safety, health care and resources to deal with growth and development.
Here are some highlights:
▪ Spend $1.6 million to recruit and retain detention officers for the Wake jail;
▪ Spend $540,000 to recruit new paramedics and train existing ones;
▪ Create seven positions to address communicable diseases, including the Zika virus and measles;
▪ Hire eight nurses and one nurse supervisor to work in schools;
▪ Hire three more food and lodging inspectors.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler