The Guilford County commissioners are never more popular than they are each year in early June when they craft the county’s $600 million-plus budget and decide who gets what. Like Powerball winners – whose long lost friends and cousins twice-removed come out of the woodwork at the prospect of money – the commissioners also get a lot of people bending their ears with the hope of seeing some bucks thrown their way.
That was certainly the case at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, June 1 meeting when the board held a public hearing on County Manager Marty Lawing’s proposed budget – the “rough draft” of the county’s 2017-2018 budget – and nearly all of the 27 speakers had the same message for the board: Please give Guilford County Schools more money.
The schools asked for an additional $10.2 million in operating funds over last year, which is $198.6 million. Lawing’s budget offers the school system more funding than last year, but not as much as schools officials wanted. Rather than the $198.6 million they requested for school operations, Lawing’s budget calls for the county to give the schools $194 million, which $5.5 million more than last year.
Lawing’s proposed budget also includes $6.5 million for school maintenance and repair, which is $500,000 more than the county gave the schools last year for that purpose. However, that falls $3.5 million short of the school system’s request for its capital needs, which was $10 million.
Some speakers wanted to know why the budget put forth by the county manager gave the schools less than requested yet cut the county’s tax rate more than 2 cents.
Alex Anton, a Grimsley student from the family that brought Greensboro the former Anton’s Restaurant, read a letter from Jim Melvin, president and CEO of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greater Greensboro and a former Greensboro mayor, in which Melvin wrote, “ Having the privilege of being a former elected official, I find it unsettling that we are proposing a two-cent reduction in the tax rate while at the same time not meeting the request of the very important budget initiative of our Guilford County schools.”
After several comments along those same lines by others, Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad went out of his way to make something crystal clear: The proposed budget does not include a tax cut – it keeps the amount of money collected from taxpayers at the same level as the budget adopted last June.
Conrad explained to everyone that the manager’s proposed budget was “revenue neutral” – something that isn’t a tax cut, even though the tax rate has moved lower to reflect the property revaluation adjustment. The 2017-2018 budget reflects a revaluation of all property in the county and Lawing’s budget doesn’t offer one iota of tax relief to Guilford County taxpayers. Under his budget proposal, Guilford County will collect the same amount in property taxes that it would have without the revaluation at last year’s tax rate.
“There seems to be some misunderstanding between the two,” Conrad said of a revenue-neutral budget and a budget with a tax cut. “Hopefully, the folks who write about this meeting will get that correct. There is a difference between a tax decrease and a revenue neutral budget.”
There were some other requests besides those for the schools – such as one for funding the Piedmont Triad Film Commission and another speaker asked for the board to help stop the exploitation of prison labor by greedy corporations – not really something that the Board of Commissioners has a whole lot of say over. The story of the meeting, however, was school advocates asking for more money for the schools.
One interesting thing is that, up until a few years ago, county citizens would line up down the hallway and out the door of the Old Guilford County Court House before a public hearing on the budget. They would pack the commissioners’ second floor meeting room to get a chance to speak; however, the crowd has been dwindling every year. Twenty-seven speakers sounds like a lot of people to listen to, but it’s not anywhere close to the number of speakers in prior years. One theory is that, ever since the Republicans won the majority of the seats on the board in 2012, each year citizens feel the board is less likely to give in to public requests. When the Democratic commissioner were in charge, some years they would just make a note of the requests, raise the tax rate 3 or 4 cents and give everybody just about everything they asked for.
Phillips has pointed out several times in this budget process that, while the school system is vitally important to Guilford County, the commissioners are forced to weigh school needs against other needs. Every dollar that goes to the schools is one that doesn’t go toward other pressing county needs such as the alarming and expensive rise in foster care costs, to take just one example.
Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that it’s difficult to justify giving the school system millions in extra funding when school officials aren’t currently spending the money well.
“When you ask us for $10 million more, you’re making the assumption that you are already running at peak efficiency, and I don’t think that’s the case,” Henning said of the county’s school system.
He said that there’s certainly “room for improvement” in the way the schools spend money.
School officials take issue with Henning’s position and last month Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan told the Rhino Times that the school system had a “very, very lean administration.”
Some commissioners who read that comment questioned if that was in fact the case. Henning said there were other concerns besides a top-heavy administrative structure. Henning said illogical district lines and busing policies add to school costs every year. He said kids in school are being bused great distances and the school board doesn’t want to redraw lines in a more efficient manner. Others have questioned the need for so much school money going into new athletic facilities when many classrooms are in need of repair.
County citizens and school officials aren’t the only ones asking the board for money these days. Guilford County department heads and other staff have been making their requests as well in recent weeks. Many pled their cases to the commissioners at a long Tuesday, May 30 budget work session two days before the June 1 public hearing.
Even Lawing is making his case regarding his wants, just like citizens, school officials and department heads. He’s put his top priorities in the budget proposal, of course, but he’s worried about the commissioners taking them out. For instance his budget includes money for a new communications officer. Lawing said that, right now, it’s the media who largely tells the county’s story and he wants to make sure information is factual and is representative of the positive things going on in Guilford County government.
“Of course, the idea is to push out information about the county,” Lawing said, “most of which is positive, but if it’s not exactly positive we want it to be factual and that can go out too. This way we can be proactive in telling our story and, in these days and times, with the way the press is, they are often negative and you need somebody to tell your story so to speak.”
Much of the renewed emphasis on that position this year is due to a local television news report that showed an animal shelter volunteer stating, during a renovation job at the shelter, that the shelter might have to euthanize animals over space concerns if foster homes for dogs and cats couldn’t be found. County officials were angered by that report and sent out a press release that stated categorically that the shelter never euthanizes animals for space. That news report made a big impression on the commissioners earlier this year and it is an example of why the county thinks it needs someone in charge of communicating with the public.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said the county has 11 different Facebook accounts, a Twitter stream and other social media accounts and this new communications director would also oversee those, providing a consistent social media presence.
Guilford County Health Director Merle Green has asked for 10 new school nurses a year over a period of six years in order to get the schools up to a “recommended ratio” of one nurse for every 750 students.
“We need about 60 more,” Green told the board at the May 30 work session. “Rather than ask you for 60 nurses, we are asking for 10 a year for six years.”
Lawing said one thing he considered when he limited the number of school nurses in his budget proposal is that there may be a slowdown of the economy and that county officials need to be mindful of that.
He also said there was another reason his budget only included four nurse positions.
“After talking with school officials, while they think having more school nurses would be positive, it’s not at the top of their list,” Lawing said. “But I feel like we need to make some progress.”
There are lots of other new requests for 2017-2018 that have made it into the manager’s budget. To name just a few, the county’s technology department wants $193,000 to implement the first phase of a new data disaster backup system and the Sheriff’s Department is hoping for $157,000 for 365 software licenses for Microsoft Office for its employees
The manager’s budget includes $84,00 for lab supplies for a new DNA lab and $280,500 for 37 replacement vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department.