'I would pay twice my property taxes.' Wake citizens share thoughts on county budget

Wake County Manager David Ellis
Wake County Manager David Ellis

Parents and education advocates lobbied for more funding for Wake County schools Monday and, in some cases, asked the Wake County commissioners to raise their taxes to do it.

Between two meetings Monday, more than 50 people spoke in front of the Wake County leaders to voice both support for and concern about County Manager David Ellis's recommended $1.3 billion budget, which includes a 2.9-cent property tax rate increase. It would add $87 on the tax bill on a $300,000 home under the proposed plan.

"I would pay twice my property taxes if the money went to the schools and public services," said Lisa Mead. "I am up here pleading with my 3-year-old future voter to you to fund our schools with the money that our community deserves them to have."

The county's proposed budget includes $30 million in new funding for the school system, but falls short of the school system's $58.9 million request for additional money. The school system said it needs $48 million in additional funding just to maintain services, including opening four new schools and meeting the state-mandated K-3 class size changes. The rest of the request would go toward improving services.

The tax rate would have to go up about 2 more cents to fully fund the school system's request.

Suzanne Miller, who spoke at the evening meeting, asked how county commissioners could march with teachers to the state legislature and then not fully fund the school district's request.

"Budgets are moral documents," she said. "They show us what they value. I want our schools to see what you value."

Sherry Presnall, the president of a school's PTA, said her organization should be raising money for playgrounds, benches and new technology. Instead, her principal is requesting bulk paper, bulbs for smart boards and fans because classrooms aren't cool enough.

"We do all of this because our schools are our community, our teachers are our heroes and our kids are our futures," she said. "We are proud of our schools, but we are tired of swimming upstream."

Former school board member Susan Parry, speaking on behalf of WakeUP Wake County, said she is glad to see the per-pupil spending back up to its highest level. But she said they shouldn't fool themselves on the work left to do.

"Many of the functions that were once funded by the state have been handed off to the counties," she said. "Foolish? Certainly. Fair? Probably not. But it is what it is."

Kelly O'Hara, a teacher in Wake County schools, said she has students who are homeless, hungry and have disabilities.

"I've turned into a social worker and I don't know what to do," she said. "So I go home and I cry."

But as much as schools were on people's minds, nearly as many people praised the county for including $15 million in new funding dedicated toward affordable housing. In the next five years, $54 million would go toward new affordable housing, under the budget.

Some of those organizations included Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, DHIC Inc. and Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors.

Tangie Thompson, who experienced several years of homelessness, said finding affordable housing has been a lifeline and given her a second chance at life.

"I hope my words today will show the necessity for more dollars to be invested in my brothers and sisters in Wake County who struggle with homelessness and its consequences," she said.

Michael White, a veteran who experienced homelessness, said finding affordable housing saved his life and gave him the stability he needed to move forward.

Here's a look at some of the other items included in the county manager's recommended budget:

$30.6 million in programs to coordinate access to mental health and psychiatric services.

Money to replace 13-year-old voting equipment.

Expand the Wake Forest Community Library and open the new Cary Regional Library.

Add a revenue manager to oversee revenue and cash management and fund an annual external audit of the Register of Deeds Office.

Add a second recruiter to the Wake County Sheriff's Office to help fill 44 deputy and detention officer positions.

Increase funding for SmartStart to end the pre-K waiting list in Wake County.

$4.6 million in new money for Wake Technical Community College.

The Wake County leaders will consider voting for the budget at 5 p.m. June 4. The full budget can be found online at www.wakegov.com/budget.

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