Chapel Hill News

Draft $239.3M Orange budget adds $2.6M for schools; tax rate unchanged

Bonnie Hammersley
Bonnie Hammersley

County Manager Bonnie Hammersley presented a $239.3 million budget Thursday that maintains the county’s property tax rate next year but meets only part of local school requests.

The proposal adds $6.5 million to this year’s budget and designates $212.8 million to the general fund, or operating budget. The $239.3 million budget also includes other county funds, such as solid waste, SportsPlex and sales tax revenues designated for schools and economic development.

Roughly $10.7 million from the county’s fund balance would cover an expected shortfall. The fund, used to manage cash flow throughout the year andpay for unforeseen expenses, would remain at about 18 percent of the county’s operating budget.

The county tax rate, if the budget is approved, would remain 87.8 cents per $100 in property value, generating a $2,634 county tax bill for the owner of property valued at $300,000.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough set their own property tax rates, plus Chapel Hill and Carrboro property owners pay a school district tax of 20.84 cents per $100 in property value.

The solid waste fee would remain $107 for all county residents.

Hammersley recommended a $2.6 million increase for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County schools, raising local education spending to $99.8 million, or roughly 49.4 percent of the county’s general revenues. Schools also get state and federal money.

The budget, which also pays school construction debt, cuts the city school district’s operating revenues by $615,491 to $44.6 million – due to a drop in enrollment, officials said. It increases the amount budgeted for the county school district, which expects more students, by $805,423 to $29.6 million.

Spending per student is projected to grow by $24.50 to $3,722 each, including $2.7 million to fully fund 736 charter school students.

The special district tax could provide the city schools with another $22.4 million.

While less than the $8 million that the districts requested to boost teacher salaries and student spending, the budget also includes $3.3 million to hire a nurse in every school and school resource officers in all middle and high schools. The districts could use the $1.4 million that would save them to cover other needs, Hammersley said.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners also could provide more funding, she said.

“It’s a really tough situation,” she said. “Unfortunately, the county can’t fix what happens at the state level, and most of this is due to issues at the state (level) and funding teachers’ pay. The resources aren’t at the local level, and the state isn’t making it easier on local government.”

The board will meet with both school districts May 26 to talk about their requested increases. The commissioners said Thursday they are watching what the state legislature does about school funding this year and are open to a conversation about how to meet the needs.

Other budget highlights include a 3 percent pay raise for all county employees – 2 percent in July and another 1 percent in January – and seven new positions, including three in the Sheriff’s Office.

Hammersley also recommended increasing the county’s living wage for its own employees from $12.76 an hour to $13.15 an hour.

Orange Public Transportation would become a separate department with its own director, and $50,000 would be allocated to the new Orange Connect scholarship program to help 50 city and county high school graduates attend Durham Technical Community College for two years.

The New Hope and Orange Grove fire departments requested fire tax rate increases of a half-cent and a penny, respectively. The New Hope fire tax rate, if approved, would be roughly 10 cents per $100 in property value; the rate for Orange Grove would be 7 cents.

Holding the line on the property tax rate was a priority, Hammersley said.

“I think some of the uncertainty of what’s ahead of us (made the tax rate a priority), because being in government, there’s uncertainty – the economy hasn’t completely recovered – and also with the bond referendum,” Hammersley said. “If the bond referendum passes in the fall, then we will be faced with potentially a tax rate increase at that time.”

A $125 million bond for affordable housing and school needs will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. It could add up to five cents to the county tax rate.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Meetings planned

The Orange County Commissioners will hold multiple work sessions to talk about next year’s budget and two 7 p.m. public hearings – May 12 at the Whitted Building in Hillsborough and May 19 at the Southern Human Services Center in Chapel Hill.