Moore County Commissioners are standing by their unanimous decision to adopt a budget for the new year that doesn’t provide any increase in funding for the public schools.
In interviews this past week, commissioners said this was not the right time for another property tax increase on the heels of one last year, which came on top of a property revaluation that saw values go up for most people.
Commissioners also ruled out dipping into surplus funds, given the uncertainties ahead in terms of impacts from the coronavirus. Commissioners also said they did not want to adversely impact the county’s financial bond rating, should the county need to borrow more money for capital needs.
County Manager Wayne Vest told commissioners last month those were two options the board could consider if it wanted to increase funding for schools.
The school board sought more money earlier this year 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 the residents offering public comment over the past week said this should not be 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.
Vest’s budget 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. The approved amount is essentially what the district received last year, less a one-time allocation for the opening of a new school.
Commissioner Catherine Graham, who serves on the budget team along with Board Chairman Frank Quis and other county officials, disputed claims by school supporters that the county is cutting funding for education. She argued that the $739,133 reduction from this year’s appropriation equaled that one-time allocation that went to covering the costs of opening McDeeds Creek Elementary School last year.
“We didn’t cut their funding for current expenses,” Graham said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “We just did not increase their funding.
“Last year, we didn’t have the questions and uncertainties we do this year. There are so many unknowns. We have to look at the needs of the entire county, not just schools, and do the best we can to meet those needs.”
Quis also cited those uncertainties regarding revenue impacts from the coronavirus pandemic in a brief statement during the meeting Tuesday before voting to adopt the budget. He said Friday morning that he stands by that decision.
“We have to take a lot of things into consideration,” he said of the needs facing the county.
He said Tuesday that the county government “has responsibility for construction and maintenance” of school facilities. In addition to funding current operations and capital needs, the county is facing higher debt service payments on $103 million in voter-approved bonds that financed construction of three new elementary schools as well as well as traditional bank loans totaling nearly $47 million to pay for building McDeeds Creek Elementary and an expansion at North Moore High School.
He said all of that caused him “to take a cautious approach to this year’s budget.”
Graham said commissioners “struggled” with developing a budget to meet as many needs as possible and be fiscally responsible. She said they also have to take in account the impact on taxpayers, who are also being affected by the pandemic.
“Many of them are struggling,” Graham said. “We are where we are. We will see where we are next year.”
While acknowledging the overwhelming support voiced for increased school funding during a June 16 public hearing, Quis said commissioners hear from constituents throughout the year, and many have expressed concerns about another tax increase.
Commissioners raised the rate by 4.5 cents to 51 cents per each $100 of value last June, the first increase in a decade.
“That tax increase was hard to swallow for some of our citizens,” he said. “The feedback we get doesn't just come from the public hearing.”
While some suggested the county use its savings to support the school budget, Graham noted that reserve funds are typically used to cover one-time or unplanned expenses.
“We have to be fiscally responsible and keep Moore County in good financial condition,” she said.
Beyond the schools and normal county operations, which also include public safety and human services, the county is also having to raise funds to build a new courthouse. She previously said that is something the commissioners have no choice to do, because of pressure from the judicial system.
She said funding was increased for the Sheriff’s Office to hire 10 additional detention officers as a result of renovating a portion of the old jail to have more space, but the county expects to recover most of that expense from housing inmates who serve time for misdemeanors in county jails.
“We’re in good shape with law enforcement,” she said.
Commissioners Otis Ritter and Louis Gregory also defended their votes to approve the budget as proposed. The Pilot was unable to reach Commissioner Jerry Daeke for comment. Quis was the only one to make a comment before the board voted Tuesday to adopt the $115.7 million budget that holds the line on taxes.
Commissioner Louis Gregory said the county can only do so much given all the needs it faces, including increased debt service for building new schools, which he supports. But he said the county has to stay within its means.
“This was not the right time for a tax increase,” he said. “I believe we have provided adequate funding for the schools. I am for the children. I want them to get the best education possible. I have done everything I could since I have been here.”
Ritter said he feels like the county has a “good” budget for the coming fiscal year given the uncertainties it is facing on revenues.
“We’re taking a big hit in sales tax revenues,” he said. “We have to look at what we can realistically do. This is not the time to be raising taxes. We try to stay within our means. We have tried to fund the schools as best we can and I think we are doing that. It may not be as much as they wanted. We have had to tighten our belt. Everyone needs to tighten their belts during these times. Things may be different next year.”
Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.