The Wake County Board of Commissioners could nearly meet the county school system’s yearly budget request by approving a larger tax increase than initially planned, the board learned on Monday, and the idea has some support among the elected officials.
The Wake County Public School System has asked for about $48.3 million in new funding, or about 14 percent over last year’s budget. However, County Manager Jim Hartmann had recommended only $34 million in new funding.
The gap between the school system’s request and Hartmann’s recommendation would require school leaders to pick and choose among items on their wish list, from teacher raises to expansions for magnet programs. But county staff on Monday set the stage for a different scenario: A tax hike of 3.9 cents per $100 in property value would nearly meet the schools’ demands.
The county manager has proposed increasing property taxes by 2.9 cents per $100 in property value, or about $77 per year on a home worth the Wake County average of $265,000.
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But an increase of 3.9 cents, or about $103 on the average home, would give the county enough new money to meet nearly all of the school’s requests for the year.
Most of the elected officials aren’t tipping their hands about the idea yet, but Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said that she supported the larger tax increase.
“I’m in favor of going one more penny,” said Commissioner Betty Lou Ward. “ ... We’re not talking about that much more in taxes,” she added later.
Chairman James West said the schools are a priority, but urged a slower approach.
“I think that this is a giant step in the right direction,” he said of the smaller increase that is currently proposed. He worries that the General Assembly could cut the county’s funding in the future, possibly even in “retaliation” for increased spending.
A smaller step “is going to yield more than if we just jump out of the gate,” he said.
A tax increase wouldn’t permanently balance the county’s books. Those new programs would add costs to future budgets.
For example, the school system’s plan to increase new teachers’ salaries would step up $16 million per year for five years, adding up to $80 million annually by the fiscal year 2020. Along with other costs, that could create deficits of $20 million per year.
Commissioner John Burns asked the commissioners to consider the programs and possibilities for funding before the board makes a final decision.
Among the possibilities: Commissioner Matt Calabria is pushing for funding to make school breakfast available for all students at 15 schools. There’s also strong support on the board to increase funding for the Smart Start early education program.
The board also is wrestling with requests for new funding from the N.C. Symphony and The Healing Place, a nonprofit that serves people with drug and alcohol problems who don’t have housing.
The board is scheduled to adopt a final budget on June 15.