Wake County commissioners are doing double duty. Not only do they have the usual tasks of county commissioners, but they also have to do the work the preceding board didn’t do.
One big thing the preceding board didn’t do was raise taxes. Former board Chairman Paul Coble said in his 2012 address on the state of the county, “Our number one goal was maintaining the property tax rate at 53.4 cents. I’m proud that we were able to keep that rate for the fourth straight year.”
Coble and his fellow Republicans who controlled the board might have been proud. But they were not responsible. While the board held the line on taxes, the county’s population and school enrollment grew, transit development was put aside, the public schools slipped and the hard and politically challenging work of catching up was passed to the current all-Democratic board.
Now it’s time for the board to do what went undone. That starts with approving the school board’s request for $48.3 million in new funding, or about a 14 percent increase over last year’s budget. The increase would fund salary boosts for teachers and school employees and the expansion of magnet programs that foster quality and diversity in Wake schools. However, County Manager Jim Hartmann recommended only $34 million in new school funding, which would force the school board to pick and choose which neglected need to meet.
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The Wake County school system, already the state’s largest at 155,000 students, is expected to add 3,000 students next school year. It’s growing because many newcomers are drawn to Wake County by the quality of its schools. Letting that quality slip because of underpaid teachers and reduced programs jeopardizes an engine of county growth and shortchanges students.
Hartmann is recommending a prudent increase, but he is relatively new to the county and may not appreciate the extent to which the spending level has slipped relative to inflation and population growth – and relative to the high expectations of Wake residents. Commissioners should thank him for advising the safer course and then do what’s needed. School board members took a political risk by asking for a big jump in spending. Their county counterparts should do the same.
As political risks go, giving the school board its full request is not that hazardous. The four new commissioners were elected on promises of improving school funding. The Wake PTA and WakeUp Wake County, the citizens group, support full funding. And most property owners know that the double-edged gift they got from Coble et al – a low and frozen tax rate – can’t and shouldn’t last in the face of growth and its challenges to government services.
There’s only a $13.7 million gap between what the school board has requested and what Hartmann is recommending. By WakeUp’s calculations, fully funding the additional $13.7 million would add $27 to the property tax bill for an average Wake County home. Funding the school board’s total $48.3 million requested increase would raise the Wake County tax rate 3.9 cents, equal to about $104 more a year on the average Wake County home assessed at $265,000.
That increase – on top of last year’s 4.4 cent bump to pay for the school construction bond issue voters approved in 2013 – would take the county’s property tax rate from 57.8 cents to 61.7 cents. That would be a significant boost, but Wake’s rate would still be well below those of North Carolina’s two other large, urban counties. Mecklenburg County’s is 81.57 cents; Guilford County’s is 77 cents.
Wake County commissioners will take up the budget issue Monday. It should be a simple debate. After years of no, no, no, it’s time to say yes.