Teaser Moore County commissioners

Moore County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to adopt a budget for the coming year that holds the line on taxes and reduces funding for public schools’ operational expenses.

The $115.7 million general fund budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 amounts to a 1.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year. It keeps the property tax rate unchanged at 51 cents for each $100 of value.

The advanced life support tax to support the county's emergency medical system, paid by all county property owners, would remain at 4 cents. The fire service tax also would remain unchanged for the second year at 9.5 cents. That tax is paid by those living in unincorporated areas.

But it does include increases in landfill fees as well as water and sewer rates.

Commissioners met in person in the Historic Courthouse in Carthage for the first time since March when things were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then meetings have been conducted remotely online, including the required public hearing on the budget a week ago.

A special meeting was needed to adopt the budget. A new state law allowing elected boards to meet remotely requires that they must wait 24 hours to take action on items up for a public hearing in order to receive additional public comments.

All but two of the 36 residents — three who spoke in person and 31 who submitted written comments — had urged commissioners during the hearing to grant the school board’s budget request, which amounted to a $3.4 million increase over this year.

The county received six additional comments — four of them supporting increased funding for schools — after the public hearing.

After the comments were read, Commissioner Otis Ritter made a motion to adopt the budget as presented, and Commissioner Catherine Graham made the second.

Board Chairman Frank Quis was the only member to make comments before the vote was taken.

“Our Moore County government has responsibility for construction and maintenance of Moore County school facilities,” Quis said in a prepared statement. “Over the past three years, we’ve built — or are building — four new elementary schools plus an addition at North Moore High School. The additional debt on these worthy projects is beginning to be reflected in our budget.

“This fact and the uncertainty of our county’s revenues caused me to take a cautious approach to this year’s budget.”

Following adoption of the budget, commissioners also unanimously approved its annual funding agreement with Partners in Progress for economic development activities. The budget for next year includes $105,000 for the public-private partnership.

It was the level of school funding that garnered nearly all of the attention during this year’s budget process, as has been the case in past years.

The school board sought more money to help cover cost increases such as teacher raises and more K-3 teachers for state-mandated class size reductions. The district also wanted to increase pay for school support staff and hire several additional teachers to bring down student-teacher ratios in fourth and fifth grades.

Many of those offering public comment said this is not the time to reduce school funding in light of the uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They said the county has a large surplus, called a fund balance, that could be tapped to help the schools during these difficult times.

Many expressed concerns that this will lead to larger class sizes in some higher grades and would not provide funds for raises for support staff, many of whom work two jobs to make ends meet.

The budget recommended by County Manager Wayne Vest includes $31.85 million for operating costs, capital projects and digital purchases. The school board had requested $36.1 million, a $3.4 million increase over this year.

Vest noted that the recommended amount is $739,133 less than this year for operations, which equals a one-time allocation that went to opening McDeeds Creek Elementary School last year.

Vest said during his formal presentation in May that the school district has “full discretion over how to divide up” county funding for operational expenses. He also noted that the commissioners approved transferring $2.1 million from its capital reserve funds to the schools for capital needs and deferred maintenance projects in March.

During the public hearing last week, school board member Ed Dennison challenged Vest’s assertion, noting that $2.5 million must be allocated to area charter schools to ensure those students receive the same level of county funding per pupil. He also questioned whether commissioners would commit to provide additional funds from its capital reserves in the coming years toward $70 million in deferred maintenance and repairs since it is solely the county’s responsibility to fund capital needs that well exceed the regular $750,000 allocation in the budget.

Funding the school board’s full request would have required either raising property taxes, taking money from reserves or cutting spending elsewhere, Vest said last month.

He noted in his comments before the public hearing last week that the school system would likely receive an additional $2 million in state funds next year related to handling coronavirus-related issues, and other legislation pending in the General Assembly could provide more funding as well.

Vest said when $17.8 million in debt service for construction projects is factored in, the county is spending $49.66 million on schools.

School board member Helen Wallin-Miller responded to Vest’s statements in written comments she submitted pointing out that some of the additional state and federal funds “comes with strings attached and stringent end dates, and cannot be used to replace lost revenues. She noted that other allotments “have dictated amounts to help schools surmount a myriad of COVID-19 needs.

“These are all one-time funds with specific categories with end dates of Dec. 30.

She said the federal stimulus funds from the C.A.R.E.S. Act are “limited to support school districts’ direct response to COVID-19 student learning needs, and in-school and on-bus health and social distancing measures.”

Wallin-Miller said the funds cannot be used for hiring additional teachers to reduce class sizes, provide raises and meet other needs to help the school system “to keep going in the future past the pandemic.”

“Our current budget request is based on additional costs due to the increased number of students, the need to lower class sizes to support student learning, unfunded state mandates for staff and basic resources and a lack of adequate salary allotments for our classified staff.”

Wallin-Miller noted that some of pending legislation Vest referred to that could provide additional funding is “not assured” given Moore County’s status as a tier-three county by the state because of its wealth.

“Please reconsider Moore County Schools’ budget request so that we may continue to provide the level of staffing and teaching excellence our community expects and our students deserve,” she said.

Vest said in his formal budget presentation last month that one of the county’s guiding budget priorities centered on prioritizing education, public safety and public health. Combined, they account for more than 77.5 percent of the total general fund budget, he said.

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, the county is expecting to see a $3.2 million reduction in sales tax revenues next year. Even with a projected $1.4 million increase in property tax revenues — based on 2 percent growth in the tax base — the county will still be in the hole by $1.7 million. A penny on the tax rate generates about $1.37 million.

All that comes as the county faces increasing costs of providing various services. Some of those higher costs will be offset by higher fees on services such as disposal of household trash, recyclables, yard debris, and construction and demolition debris at the county landfill.

Commissioners were leery of raising property taxes for a second year. They increased the property tax rate by 4.5 cents for the current fiscal year in part to fund higher debt payments for building new schools and other facilities, as well as increasing funding in areas such as law enforcement and social services. It was the first tax increase in a decade.

It came on the heels of a revaluation in which most property owners saw their values go up, resulting in an even larger increase in their bills

Under the new budget, the recycling tipping fee charged to municipalities will increase by $7 to $122 a ton. The tipping fee for regular household garbage would be increased from $49.71 to $51.17 a ton.

Solid Waste Manager David Lambert said those increases are tied to the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation.

The fee for construction and demolition materials will be increased from the current $49.71 to $59.50 a ton. Lambert said that reflects the actual cost incurred by the county, which in the process of expanding the landfill for those materials.

The fee for yard debris would be increased by $3 to $28 a ton.

In the public utilities budget, the county is increasing base monthly water rates. For a three-quarter-inch meter, the most common, it would go from $9.69 to $9.88.

It also calls for increasing monthly base rates for the East Moore Water District. For a three-quarter-inch meter the rate would go from $25.10 to $25.60.

The bulk rate charged to municipalities and other users of the sewage treatment plant in Addor will increase from $3.07 to $3.14 per thousand gallons.

Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or dsinclair@thepilot.com

(4) comments

Kent Misegades

This sounds like a prudent decision. Some estimate that 20%-40% of all K-12 students will not return to government schools this fall as many parents are learning for the first time the benefits of home schools. Currently over 7% of all NC students are home schooled, the highest rate in the nation. Commissioners were wise to hold back the reigns on even more spending on government schools, which never seems to be enough anyway.

Barbara Misiaszek

In 2019 N.C. ranked 37th is quality of public school education in the nation. Perhaps that's because it ranked 48th in spending per pupil.

John Misiaszek

Jim Tomashoff

John, Kent wishes N.C. would be 50th in spending per pupil. It is his dear wish to end 100% of government spending on public schools. Accordingly, we can't do any worse than 50th.

Barbara Misiaszek

Tipping fees increase for inflation. School funding? Nope. That was shameful action on the part of our County Commissioner's today.

John Misiaszek

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