Wake County

Wake County targets schools, health care in proposed $1.19B spending plan

Wake County’s proposed $1.19 billion government budget for the fiscal year that starts in July includes $1.5 million to buy 200,000 new books for county libraries.
Wake County’s proposed $1.19 billion government budget for the fiscal year that starts in July includes $1.5 million to buy 200,000 new books for county libraries. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The average Wake County homeowner could pay about $36 more in property taxes next year if county leaders approve a spending plan that boosts funding for public schools and provides additional care for substance abusers and the mentally ill.

County Manager Jim Hartmann on Monday proposed a $1.19 billion government budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, which would increase spending from $1.14 billion this year. Hartmann’s proposal calls for a 1.35-cent property tax rate increase, which comes out to about an extra $36 a year for owners of properties valued at $268,000.

Hartmann’s proposal comes a year after Wake raised the property tax rate by 3.65 cents per $100 in property value. He’s also proposing a 1.48-cent increase in the fire service tax rate, which applies to residents who live in unincorporated communities and Wendell. The rate better reflects the cost of providing service and will pay for updated equipment, Hartmann said.

Much of the $18 million in additional revenue generated by the proposed property tax increase would go toward public schools, as last year’s tax hike did. Hartmann would funnel $409.9 million to public schools, a 6.6 percent increase that would boost per-pupil spending by $121 to $2,574.

The proposed Wake schools budget is $11.8 million less than county school leaders asked for. Hartmann pointed out that his proposal, if combined with this year’s budget, would mean a 20 percent boost in funding over the prior two years.

Separately, he wants to boost funding by 50 percent for Wake County’s SmartStart program and spend $1.5 million more on 200,000 new books for county libraries.

“If we’re going to be in the business of providing libraries, let’s be in the business of providing libraries,” Hartmann said.

Apart from boosting school funding, Hartmann’s proposal aims to provide significant assistance to residents he described as some of the most vulnerable and needy in Wake County. The closure of Dorothea Dix Mental Hospital in 2012 has placed a growing strain on county departments, he said.

The Wake County Detention Center houses one of the largest concentrations of people with mental health and substance abuse issues in the state, Hartmann said. He noted that annual involuntary commitments doubled to 12,100 in 2015 from 5,200 in 2008. Meanwhile, the number of residents treated annually by EMS workers for mental or substance abuse issues rose 49 percent to 2,340 between 2013 and 2015, Hartmann reported.

“We think that if we assess early on and give the appropriate treatment protocols and discharge them ... we can reduce recidivism and (prevent them) from going to emergency rooms,” he told the Wake County Board of Commissioners Monday.

Hartmann, who noted that he used to run a jail, is calling for several budget increases to offer more appropriate treatment and reduce recidivism rates.

Under Hartmann’s proposal, the county would:

▪  Spend an extra $662,000 to hire 13 more child welfare case workers. The number of children in foster care has increased 36 percent to 734 since 2010, Hartmann said.

▪  Spend an additional $757,000 to hire five other welfare case workers and contract workers to take on a 74 percent increase in adult cases, he said.

▪  Spend an extra $1.3 million on “a continuum” of mental and physical healthcare for inmates, with $263,000 going toward psychiatric and medical services and $600,000 for 12 new jobs in the jail’s medical-detox unit.

▪  Spend an extra $945,000 on 22 new detention center jobs, reducing the need for overtime

▪  Spend an extra $387,000 to create six new EMS jobs, which Hartmann said would boost the number of specially-trained paramedics available to respond to the most challenging mental health calls.

Hartmann also aimed to boost food security, a priority of the Democrat-led Wake County Board of Commissioners. His proposal offers a 44 percent increase for more school breakfasts and an additional $500,000 for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

Wake commissioners are expected to hold public hearings on Hartmann’s proposal, review it and approve a budget in June.

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

Wake’s tax rate, explained

At a glance, the Wake government budget that County Manager Jim Hartmann proposed on Monday may look like a tax decrease – but it’s not.

The Wake County property tax rate is currently 61.45 cents per $100 of assessed value. Hartmann is proposing a rate of 60.05 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Hartmann’s proposal is adjusted to compensate for an increase in some values that occurred after county assessors last year reappraised all Wake property. To keep property taxes rates as neutral as possible, the Wake Board of Commissioners would need to approve a rate of 58.7 cents per $100 of assessed value.