Wake County

Wake County budget proposal falls short of school system’s request

Fourth-grader teacher Katy Trainor, right, watches as, from left, Lucas Bedont, Ryan Olson and Matthew LaRusso take part in a lesson on electrical circuits at Salem Elementary School in Apex Wednesday, April 12, 2017.
Fourth-grader teacher Katy Trainor, right, watches as, from left, Lucas Bedont, Ryan Olson and Matthew LaRusso take part in a lesson on electrical circuits at Salem Elementary School in Apex Wednesday, April 12, 2017. tlong@newsobserver.com

A proposed Wake County budget plan includes a tax hike and calls for giving the school system a funding increase that’s about one-third the amount requested.

Wake schools would get an increase of $16 million under County Manager Jim Hartmann’s $1.26 billion plan, which he presented to the county’s Board of Commissioners on Monday. The school system had asked for an increase of $45.2 million.

Hartmann said schools should make up for the gap by using the $21 million in unused local funds the district expects to have left over after this year’s budget. Commissioners declined to say whether they support or oppose the plan, instead saying they want to hear from the public and school board members.

“I do hope that people are going to be objective and let us know what they think,” said Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake principal. “I’m reserving judgment until I’ve had time to read it.”

School board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the $16 million increase isn’t remotely close to what’s needed to make Wake an exemplary district. The $45.2 million increase would help pay for things such as more school counselors and social workers and raise salaries for bus drivers.

“Sixteen million gets nowhere near what we are talking about in being exemplary,” Johnson-Hostler said. “We have one job. Our job is to fund the best possible public school system.”

This isn’t the first time a Wake county manager has asked the school system to use local money left over from previous years, but it is the first since Democrats gained control of the Board of Commissioners in 2014.

School leaders say they need the leftover money for emergency situations, and balked at a similar suggestion when Republicans controlled the board in 2013.

Commissioner John Burns, who referred to the manager’s overall budget as “thoughtful and reasonable,” said he doesn’t think negotiations will be as tense this year as they were in previous years.

“We’ve worked really hard for the last two and a half years to improve the relationship and the openness between the boards,” Burns said.

Johnson-Hostler said school supporters will be reminding commissioners that they campaigned on being committed to supporting public education. The school board also plans to discuss Hartmann’s budget recommendation at its work session Tuesday.

“My hope is that the commissioners who shared the same platform of knowing that education is important will stand with us,” she said.

The school system, which doesn’t have its own taxing authority, accumulates savings during the school year by making changes such as shifting positions that would be paid from local dollars to state dollars and leaving some positions vacant.

Since 2007, school board policy has allowed the district to keep in reserve as much as 6 percent of the amount it receives from the county, with any excess returned to the county’s fund balance. The amount, according to school officials, was 3.6 percent as of June 30, 2016.

Johnson-Hostler said that saving the money for emergencies is an example of the school system showing good financial stewardship. But Hartmann said the leftover money should be used before asking for new money, especially if a tax increase is required.

Commissioners gave the school system an extra $14 million in 2015, another $44 million in 2016 and another $24 million last summer. The school district left $25 million in the bank in 2015, $20 million in the bank last year and expects to have $21 million unspent this year, according to Hartmann.

He noted that his plan would boost per-pupil spending by 2.5 percent to about $2,630 per student and would provide a 30 percent increase in school funding over four years.

Tax increase

The plan, which is for the fiscal year that starts July 1, would raise the property tax rate in Wake for the fourth year in a row. The increase of 1.45 cents would bump the property tax rate to 61.5 cents per $100 in valuation.

A typical property owner would pay an extra $39 in property taxes.

The move would generate an extra $21 million to help the county accommodate a growing population, which Hartmann says is putting a strain on county services.

Required spending

State law requires the county to fund the Sheriff’s Office, courthouse operations and the local school system, which accounts for 52 percent of the county budget.

Each department was instructed to eliminate redundancies, create a business plan and budget as efficiently as possible, Hartmann said. But the money saved from trimming still wasn’t enough to fully fund departments that needed additional money, he said.

About 72 percent of Wake’s budget is for services the county is required to fund by state law, Hartmann said. The rest goes to things like parks, greenways and libraries – which he said are popular among taxpayers.

“We’re pretty lean,” Hartmann said. “There’s not a lot of fat out there in the system.”

Major growth

Travis County, Texas, is the only county in America that is growing faster than Wake, Hartmann said.

Wake grows by an average of 67 residents each day, up from 63 a couple years ago.

Recruiting employees

The county is struggling to attract paramedics and detention officers for the jail, Hartmann said.

Paramedic positions are 10 percent vacant, and detention officer positions were 15 percent vacant as of last month, he said.

His proposal puts $1.6 million more into the Sheriff’s Office to boost salaries and create a recruitment position. It sets aside $390,000 to pay for training that enables EMTs to become paramedics and budgets $150,000 for recruiters to use when offering signing bonuses.

To prevent turnover among EMS employees, Hartmann’s plan would allow the department to schedule 12-hour shifts rather than 24-hour shifts.

Health care

Hartmann’s budget creates 28 new positions to help address a range of wellness-related issues, from an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and opioid addiction cases to a rising number of foster children and people staying at the homeless shelter on South Wilmington Street.

An average of 700 children are in foster care in Wake at any given time and county officials expect the number to rise by 30 or 40 now that a state law allows people to stay in the foster care system until they’re 21.

Wake would create the positions using $2.3 million in county funds and $2.9 million in state and federal grants.

Seeking feedback

Commissioners plan to hold a public hearing on Hartmann’s proposal at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday, June 5. at the Wake County Justice Center in downtown Raleigh.

Commissioners are unlikely to make substantial tweaks until they meet for a work session June 12.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht