Wake County

Wake commissioners approve larger tax hike in split decision

Wake County commissioners, from left, Caroline Sullivan, James West and Betty Lou Ward, attend a swearing-in for new commissioners after last year’s elections. On Monday, Sullivan and West voted against a property tax increase, while Ward voted in favor.
Wake County commissioners, from left, Caroline Sullivan, James West and Betty Lou Ward, attend a swearing-in for new commissioners after last year’s elections. On Monday, Sullivan and West voted against a property tax increase, while Ward voted in favor. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The Wake County Board of Commissioners on Monday approved a new budget, including a tax increase. The question of the afternoon was how much the board would raise property taxes.

In a 5-2 decision, the commissioners approved a hike of 3.65 cents per $100 in property valuation. It was one of the board’s first major budget decisions since registered Democrats swept fall elections to gain control of the board.

Chairman James West favored the smaller tax increase of 2.9 cents per $100, as proposed by county manager Jim Hartmann. That proposal would only have funded part of the Wake County Public School System’s requested budget, a fact that divided the board. School leaders have asked for $48.3 million, while Hartmann’s budget provided $34 million.

In closing comments, West said he supported the schools, but cautioned his fellow commissioners against “jumping out of the gate” and “throwing caution to the wind” as they set spending levels.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward led the charge for a larger increase, largely to support schools. She said last week that she supported a hike as high as 3.9 cents, but came forward with a smaller boost of 3.65 cents in all, or about $97 on a house worth the county average of $265,000.

The larger hike increases the schools’ budget by $10 million above Hartmann’s recommendation, coming within $4 million of the schools’ request.

Ultimately, the majority of the board voted to approve the budget with the larger 3.65-cent hike. Commissioners James West and Caroline Sullivan dissented.

School leaders already have named spending priorities including teacher raises and expansions for magnet programs.

Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said the new spending would help to recruit and retain teachers. Commissioner Jessica Holmes said the budget would strengthen early education and increase pay for school employees beyond teachers, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

“They too deserve a living wage, and this budget is one step in addressing that,” she said.

Sullivan called for a plan to increase school funding more predictably over the next few years.

Phil Matthews, former Republican chairman of the board, warned that some county residents can ill afford the full 3.9-cent increase.

“I’m speaking on behalf of a lot of people in this county that are on limited income,” he said. “They’re retired, they’re empty nesters, they’re veterans, they’re former firemen.”

And he reminded the commissioners that the commissioners were “going to have a voting record after today.”

Commission John Burns defended the expanded budget, saying he had fought to keep the cost of the tax hike under $100 for the average homeowner.

“I think that it is justified, I think that it is careful and I think that is moderate,” he said.

He also pointed to decisions by the state legislature, particularly regarding teacher pay and the reallocation of sales tax dollars to rural counties, as challenges for the county.

The budget also will provide funding to help bring professional artists into schools as instructors; expand prenatal care services; and add officers and nurses to jails, among other spending.

The county likely won’t be the only local government to raise taxes this year. The city of Raleigh on Monday instituted a hike of about 1.72 cents per $100 to fund new parks debt, which voters approved last year. Meanwhile, there is talk of a bond referendum, and a potential hike, in the next few years to cover the city’s purchase of the Dorothea Dix campus.

Kenney: 919-829-4870;

Twitter: @KenneyNC

Taxes past and present

The current Wake County property tax rate is 57.8 cents per $100 in property value, meaning a 3.65-cent hike will increase bills by about 6.3 percent. It follows an increase last year of 4.4 cents, which funded $810 million of voter-approved school bonds; before that, the rate had been unchanged since 2009.

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