Wake County

Transit, pre-K education top Wake board’s 2016 priority list

Wake County leaders say their goals for this year are aimed at helping the poor, substance abusers and those who face discrimination.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners identified its top priorities for 2016 while on a retreat in Cary on Saturday. Atop the board’s to-do list:

▪ Fund an expanded transit system

▪ Create a stable method for funding school construction that doesn’t necessarily rely on bond referendums

▪ Boost access to pre-kindergarten education programs through the school system, nonprofits and other organizations

▪ Help make the Raleigh area the arts and culture capital of the South, and

▪ Improve treatment of the addicted and mentally ill.

The group’s priorities emerged after a facilitator distributed 30 little green stickers to each commissioner and asked them to place the stickers next to any of 70 initiatives listed on poster boards.

“This is what we ran on. This is what we articulated,” Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said of the board’s goals.

The Wake Transit Plan would add trains and buses to potentially quadruple transit ridership in Wake County by 2027. Commissioners hope to fund the $2.3 billion plan with a half-cent sales tax increase referendum that they plan to put on the ballot this November.

It’s high priority because commissioners, all Democrats, advocated for it for years but were stymied by Republican commissioners who controlled the board until 2014. The Democratic commissioners think it would improve mobility in the region.

More than 221,000 people commute into Wake for work each day, while 145,000 Wake residents travel outside the county for work, according to county staff.

Commissioners spent $3,100 on the retreat – $2,500 of which paid for the facilitator.

Commissioners are re-examining their funding model for school construction.

They hoped to fund the next round of school construction through a bond referendum in 2017. But, under a state law approved in 2014, counties can hold special elections – such as a referendum on a bond issue or tax increase – only in even-numbered years or during regular countywide elections.

Commissioners are considering borrowing without voter approval because it might provide more funding stability.

The board’s goal of expanding access to pre-kindergarten programs is socially and fiscally responsible, Commissioner Jessica Holmes said.

In a first for the board, commissioners last year allotted $325,000 to early childhood development. They hope to give more this year because early childhood development has proven to be the most effective means of raising someone out of poverty, Holmes said.

Also, “it’s better to invest in a child early on than to pay for remedial services later on,” she said.

Promoting local arts programs helps child development too, Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said.

“It’s been proven that children that are brought up in homes that teach the arts become more creative adults and better businesspeople,” Ward said.

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