Wake County leaders approve 10 percent property tax increase by 6-1 vote

Corrected at 10 p.m. June 3. See details in story.

Wake County leaders voted Monday night to raise the property tax rate beyond what the manager recommended in order to give the Wake County Public School System more money.

The decision was met with support from many at the meeting, but came after others told the commissioners their taxes are already too high.

Wake County’s new property tax rate will be 72.07 cents per $100 of assessed property value, a 6.63-cent or roughly 10.13 percent increase.

The owner of a $300,000 house will pay $2,162.10 in county property taxes, a $198.90 increase.

County Manager David Ellis had recommended a property tax rate increase of 6.36 cents per $100 to cover the $1.47 billion budget.

“I am very proud of the budget we are putting forward,” said Commissioner Chair Jessica Holmes. “While it does not solve all of the school system’s problems, it is an acknowledgment that we hear you, we respect you, that we understand and quite frankly are calling out the General Assembly just down the street.”

Holmes and fellow Commissioners Greg Ford, James West, VIckie Adamson, Matt Calabria and Susan Evans voted for the budget. Commissioner Sig Hutchinson voted against it.

“To me it does not represent responsible government,” Hutchinson said. “I believe it is too much, it is too fast and it will negatively impact our seniors and vulnerable community. I do believe in incremental tax increases, but I believe this is too much.”

Voters backed three bonds last fall totaling $1.1 billion, which accounts for 3.8 cents of the property tax rate hike. The bonds will fund the school system. Wake Technical Community College and parks, open space and greenways.

The budget gives the school system $45 million in additional funding. WCPSS had requested $48.3 million in new funding, and Ellis had recommended $36.5 million in new funding.

“Fully funding” the school system was a point of conflict in last year’s county elections, including in the Democratic primary. Two incumbents who did not vote to fully fund the school system’s request lost their re-election bids.

Speakers clash

Several people signed up to speak Monday night about the budget and — in some cases — take shots at others in the room, clapping or calling people part of the problems.

Susan Book asked for commissioners to consider the children who are fighting for resources and parents advocating on their behalf. Schools are crumbling, said Patti Taylor, adding that the lack of funding has contributed to Wake County schools moving in the wrong direction.

There needs to be more money for mental health workers, counselors and nurses, said Christy Verecky who described helping a student with a life-threatening medical situation. A nurse wasn’t at her school and she had to learn how to disconnect an insulin pump while on the phone with the nurse.

Gene Ortiz said he planned to speak calmly about the proposed tax increase but couldn’t after hearing the emotion from the other speakers. He lives on a fixed-income, he said, adding he doesn’t have an extra 10% to give to the county.

“Let’s get real here, folks,” he said. “Dipping into our pockets is unfair. Shame on you.”

At one point a woman who said she had moved to Wake County and supported more money for schools said people who have been here for a long time could always sell their homes for the increased value and move to Johnston County.

A man in the crowd shouted that she was part of the problem.

Vulnerable communities

The additional money for the school system over the manager’s recommendation comes from a couple of places within the budget including $3 million from the county’s savings, called a fund balance, an additional 0.27 cents on the property tax rate and a $500,000 decrease in county operations.

Another $1 million came from the county’s Department of Human Services’ revenue from the state. Wake County learned the department would receive more money from the state and federal governments, freeing county money for something else.

Hutchinson urged keeping the money within the department to help the county’s most vulnerable residents and said if board members wanted to increase funding for education, they should do it with a tax increase.

“This tax increase is going to negatively impact our vulnerable communities, particularity in southeast Raleigh,” he said. “There are seniors who are on a fixed income.”

Several commissioners, including Holmes, said they wouldn’t vote for something if they thought it would hurt the human services department.

As a single, working woman, Holmes said there were no “money trees in my backyard” and that she understood how tax increases affect residents.

“I find great irony in how long we spent debating $1 million from our fund balance and how quickly the debate seemed to go by when we were talking about $4 million from our debt service for a park,” she said, referencing a controversial decision of a previous board to buy the former Crooked Creek Golf Course to turn into a park. Once new members were elected to the board, they voted to give the land to the town of Fuquay-Varina for free for the development of a park and other town services.

After the meeting, Wake County Chief Operating Officer Johnna Rogers confirmed no services would be cut and the human services department wouldn’t be impacted by the switch.

Hutchinson said he stood by his decision.

Other budget highlights:

  • $6.3 million increase to open three new libraries, expand hours at six libraries and end all late fates.

  • $4 million increase to hire more than 20 employees and buy new ambulances for Emergency Medical Services.
  • $3.9 million increase in “organizational support,” including a 3% pay raise for county employees.
  • $3.5 million increase to the Board of Elections’ Office for municipal elections, though the county will likely be reimbursed from cities, an additional staff member to help issue photo identification cards for 2020 elections and expand early voting for the 2020 primary, among other things.
  • $1.7 million increase for IT security to prevent risk of hacking and digital ransoms.
The increase for the board of elections has been corrected.

You can find all of the materials, including the more than 400-page budget, at www.wakegov.com/budget

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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