Wake County

Wake County leaders approve nearly 4-cent property tax rate increase

The Wake County Board of Commissioners during a June 4, 2018, meeting.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners during a June 4, 2018, meeting. ajohnson@newsobserver.com

Wake County leaders voted Monday to give local public schools more money than originally planned, including money for school counselors.

The $45 million increase for Wake County Public Schools over the current year plus money for the county's affordable housing efforts will come with a nearly 4-cent property tax rate increase. As part of that school funding increase, a special pool of $2 million was set aside for school social workers, counselors and psychologists.

Commissioners approved the $1.32 billion budget for next fiscal year Monday night, with Commissioner Sig Hutchinson the sole vote against the budget.

"Yes, we can do more, but I can't live with how fast we are doing it," Hutchinson said.

Wake County residents have seen the county property tax rate increase every year since 2014. The county property tax rate will be 65.44 cents per $100 valuation or a 3.94-cent increase. That's a $117 increase on the property tax bill for a $300,000 home.

After the vote, Hutchinson said he was moved by the thought of senior citizens who live on fixed incomes or the family on a budget looking to buy their first home. One of the big takeaways, Hutchinson said, was helping teachers rediscover their joy for teaching.

One woman left her seat in the audience and said, "You fund them, Mr. Hutchinson, that is how you do it."

Wake County's originally proposed budget included a 2.9-cent tax hike to increase funding by $30 million to the Wake County public schools. That fell short of the $58.9 million in additional money over the current year that the Wake County school board said it needed, including $48 million just to maintain services and meet legislative mandates.

Hours before the county was set to vote on the budget, the commissioners met for a last-minute afternoon budget work session to hammer out final details. There they heard from Wake County school staff that the school system would, in light of the recent passage of the state budget, actually need another $10 million in local dollars. Of that, $6 million would go toward the local teacher supplement.

Greear Webb, a junior at Sanderson High School, was one of a handful of people who spoke during the meeting in support of increasing funding for public schools.

"If a price can be put on the lives and well being of children, surely it is greater than 2.9 cents?" he said. "Politics cannot be allowed to poison the funding that our schools desperately need. That our students desperately need. Fund counselors, fund nurses and, in doing so, fund our futures. Money must be found."

Other education investments in the budget include enough money to end the wait list for the county's SmartStart program, which aims to improve early childhood development, and $4.6 million in additional money for Wake Technical Community College.

One penny of the property tax rate increase — about $15 million — would go toward the county's affordable housing efforts. Over five years the affordable housing money would be used to assist 100 families in owning a home, create 2,500 units and effectively end veterans' homelessness.

Commissioner John Burns said the county has made a historic investment in public education over the last four years, but that it hasn’t been enough because of the limitations put on the school system by the state legislature.

Burns asked for the budget to be amended to include the special pool of money dedicated to school counselors and social workers. The school board requested more than $5 million for those employees, but Burns said he didn’t want to tie the school board’s hands as the state takes away their flexibility.

Even if the General Assembly makes cuts or passes along unfunded mandates, chairwoman Jessica Holmes said she and her colleagues on the Wake County Commission would continue to protect students and educators.

"Our teachers and students deserve more than what is available to them" she said. "... Education is a great equalizer."

While voting in favor of the budget, commissioner Erv Portman offered a warning, stating that the county can't continue to raise property taxes year after year. The current group of county leaders has been digging out of a hole created by the previous Republican-led county board, he said, but that power could shift back to the Republicans if the county keeps raising property tax rates.

The full budget can be found online at www.wakegov.com/budget