Some Wake residents told county leaders Monday that more money should go to public schools, even if it means raising taxes.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners heard from more than a dozen people Monday afternoon who said a proposed $1.26 billion budget does not go far enough to fund the school system.
The school board asked for an increase of $45.2 million in local funding, but County Manager Jim Hartmann’s budget plan offers $16 million and tells the school board to use its $21 million in cash from last year to help make up the gap.
“You want to fund ongoing expenses with one-time funding,” Beverley Clark, a former school board member, told commissioners. “We know that’s bad budgeting.”
Several speakers asked the county to fully fund the school district’s request.
“I’m here to ask you to raise my taxes,” said Anne Cooper of Raleigh.
Under Hartmann’s budget, Wake would raise the property tax rate by 1.45 cents to 61.5 cents for every $100 in value to help keep up with growth. This would be the fourth year in a row for a property tax hike.
Even with the increase, Wake’s tax rate would be among the lowest in the Triangle.
WakeUP Wake County, a left-leaning nonprofit that advocates for smart growth, said commissioners should fund $38 million of the school system’s request without asking it to dip into reserves.
“We all understand that the county has increasing needs in every vital service,” said Julia Lee, chairwoman of WakeUP’s board. “But I believe, given our relatively low tax rate, we can provide necessary support without placing an undue burden on our citizens.”
Former school board member Tom Oxholm encouraged commissioners – all Democrats – to be bold, alluding to former commissioners who balked at fully funding schools.
“If you all don’t solve this problem, as the most pro-school board (group) we’ve ever had, who’s going to solve this problem?” Oxholm said.
Commissioners said they were encouraged by Monday afternoon’s meeting because speakers were more civil than in previous years, and because their priorities seem to align with the values of the community. A second public hearing on the budget is to be held Monday evening.
“It’s good to have reinforced that the things that we stay up thinking about at night are also the things our citizens prioritize,” said Matt Calabria, vice chairman of the board.
Calabria and chairman Sig Hutchinson declined to say whether they’d support the current plan, adding they want hear more from the public.
Darryl Black, a former employee in Wake’s Register of Deeds office, was the only resident to criticize the proposed tax rate. Black noted the ongoing probe of the deeds office for missing funds, saying the county should demonstrate fiscal responsibility before raising taxes once more.
Lorrin Freeman, Wake’s district attorney, announced in March that she opened an investigation into the office because a “significant’ amount of money was missing. The county fired technician Troy Ellis on April 5, but the investigation is ongoing.
Black, who said he resigned in February, said Wake still needs to earn the public’s trust by explaining the situation.
“An external performance audit would be very helpful in this area,” Black said.
Other speakers asked commissioners to fund libraries and a local nonprofit.
Lisa Behrens, who chairs the county’s library commission, asked the board to open all county libraries on Sundays. It would cost the county $276,000 a year to open them from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
“Sunday hours are particularly beneficial to at-risk families,” Behrens said.
Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles asked the board to build a library in his town.
Pablo Escobar of Urban Ministries of Wake County asked the board to give $75,000 to Wake Smiles, a nonprofit that provides dental work for the needy.