Most people can’t pull money out of thin air.
However, it turns out county budget directors do have that near magical ability – and that trick came in handy on Thursday, June 15, when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners needed to find an extra $717,000 fast to get the votes necessary to unanimously pass the 2017-2018 county budget.
In the end, in order to get all four Democratic commissioners on board, the Republicans needed to find more money for Guilford County Schools and fund some other projects as well – which is when Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford worked his magic. Halford simply grabbed a pencil (or maybe a computer keyboard) and changed one figure. He bumped up the county’s estimated sales tax revenue for the coming fiscal year by $717,000. After all, those revenue projections are just that – projections – so who’s to say Guilford County won’t do a little better than expected when it comes to sales tax money in 2017-2018.
The budget adopted by the Board of Commissioners, which goes into effect on July 1, will be the chief financial document for the county until June 30, 2018 – though the commissioners will amend it frequently over the next 12 months.
This year, the board didn’t stray very far at all from the budget proposal presented in May by Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing. As he recommended, the commissioners kept the county’s property tax at the same level it was, with a new tax rate of 73.05 cents per $100 of property values. After a countywide revaluation of property values – which is reflected in the new budget – the rate of 73.05 cents is the one that keeps overall revenue from property taxes at the same level as the previous tax rate before the revaluation.
Each year, the county budget is largely considered “the chairman’s budget” because he or she is in charge of finding at least five votes – ideally more – to pass a budget for the new fiscal year. Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips seemed pleased after the unanimous vote this time around, which didn’t come easy at all. Phillips, Vice Chairman Alan Branson and other commissioners and county staff had been working hard in the weeks leading up to June 15 to arrive at the $606 million county budget that used Lawing’s proposal as a starting point.
On Wednesday, June 14, Phillips met with Democratic Commissioners Skip Alston and Carolyn Coleman at the Old Guilford County Court House, and negotiations continued with Republican and Democratic commissioners via phone calls and text messages. That went on late into the night and started back up early in the morning, and the talks were still going strong right up until 5:55 p.m. Thursday – 25 minutes after the planned start time of the commissioners meeting.
The night before, one Republican commissioner predicted the vote would “either be 5-to 4 or 9-to-0,” and he turned out to be right, with a deal struck in the final minutes.
In the end, Phillips pulled in the four Democrats by throwing a few not-too-costly sweeteners their way. For instance, one addition was an out-of-the-blue $25,000 in funding for the Renaissance Community Cooperative. Advocates of that neighborhood grocery store in east Greensboro have been asking for county money for years, but have never gotten a dime until this budget. Alston, for one, pushed for the money, which was a hard pill to swallow for some of the Republican commissioners, but a pill they did take. Some Republican commissioners on the board have even questioned the legitimacy of the whole “food desert crisis” that the co-op was meant to help address.
Another last-minute budget change was a bump up in school operating funds. This is where Halford used a little creative sleight of hand and magically came up with the extra money. To cover school operations – such as teacher salaries and paying the power bills – the final county budget provides $195.9 million, after $2 million was added in the final hours to help get the Democrats on board with the budget. Of that $2 million, $500,000 came from the money Halford pulled out of nowhere, while the other $1.5 million was transferred from the capital allocation that the county planned to give the schools for building maintenance and repair. Lawing’s budget had proposed $6.5 million in capital funding for Guilford County Schools in 2017-2018, but, after the transfer, $5 million was left for that purpose in the final budget. That means that, overall, the schools really only got an additional $500,000 in county funding through the last minute budget talks.
While the transfer of school capital to pay for operations may seem like robbing Peter to pay Paul, school officials were in on the conversations and they apparently preferred to have that money slated for operations. So school officials didn’t get everything they were asking for, but they did get the extra $500,000 in magic money and the transfer of funds from capital uses to operations. That was on top of Lawing’s proposed $5.5 million increase at a time when student population in Guilford County Schools is relatively flat. In addition, the Republicans have increased school funding every year since they took the majority of seats on the Board of Commissioners in late 2012. With all that, and with nearly half the county budget going to the schools in a year when many other needs are straining county funds, it’s something of shame that the main narrative from some media outlets is that the county commissioners “underfunded” the schools simply because the schools didn’t get everything school officials asked for.
Democratic Commissioner Kay Cashion got something she wanted in this budget: county funding for the Piedmont Triad Film Commission. Executive Director Rebecca Clark made a last ditch effort on behalf of her organization at a Board of Commissioners work session the week before the final budget was adopted, and her plea paid off to the tune of $25,000. Clark stressed the economic impact of films that chose locations in Guilford County – such as the horror film The Disappointments Room that was shot at a Sedgefield home and is now available on Netflix.
The first public sign the Democrats were on board with the 2017-2018 budget deal was at the Thursday, June 15 meeting when Alston, who is definitely not a Republican, made the motion to adopt the budget and his motion was seconded by Commissioner Carlvena Foster, who’s also a Democrat. Republican Commissioner Hank Henning read the motion’s details, but he left some parts vague – there had been so many last minute changes that even Henning, who was charged with reading the motion, wasn’t exactly clear on what was in there.
Phillips said after the meeting that, in conversations with the schools, there was an attempt to do what the county could for Guilford County Schools, while at the same time respecting the county’s limited funds and competing needs. He said school officials provided some input in the final days.
“We talked to the schools,” Phillips said.
Phillips also said that, despite the unanimous vote, and a budget he’s pleased with overall, the county needs to reevaluate things such as the process it uses to determine which nonprofits and economic development groups – known as “community-based organizations” or “CBO’s” – get county funding and which ones do not.
“Late May and early June every year, we talk about the CBO funding and we need to rethink the application format and the criteria used, and we also need to consider specific economic development results. That’s got to change; in the fall there will be a discussion about that.”
Phillips said the way Clark approached the board in an effort to get money to bring film projects to the county was a textbook example of the right way to make that type of request. He said she presented the board with real evidence of financial benefits to the area economy and showed how the funds would be used to maximize that. He added that her pitch was convincing, and, he said, unlike some other groups that seek county funds, Clark didn’t just turn in the paperwork and hope she had enough commissioners on her side to get funding. He said her approach was effective not only in terms of persistence, but also because there was no cursory assumption that the group would get the money without having to justify it.
Phillips also commented on the funding of the Renaissance co-op grocery store.
“That meant a lot to the African-American commissioners,” he said.
Coleman got some things she wanted: some money for county employee raises – enough for an average raise of 3 percent – and higher wages for some low-paid county van drivers.
“We resolved that concern,” Phillips said of Coleman’s request regarding driver pay. There were only three drivers, who were getting less than $12 an hour, that Coleman wanted bumped up, but that will also mean other county employees with more seniority get bumped up as well to avoid “compression” – that is, to maintain a pay gap between employees who have been there a long time and those who are relatively new.
Coleman is also the main reason the African American Atelier – a museum in downtown Greensboro – gets county funding each year. Coleman is friends with 12th District Congresswoman Alma Adams, who runs the gallery, and the $50,000 included in the 2017-2018 budget for the atelier helped seal Coleman’s yes vote as well.
Henning said the commissioners have a lot of questions about how the school system operates and he would have rather seen more capital funding from the county rather than operations money.
“This happens every year,” Henning said. “We try to put more into capital but they want more on the operating side.”
Like Phillips, Henning said Guilford County has to clean up the CBO funding process so that those groups getting money are offering verified, tangible benefits for the county in exchange for those dollars spent. Henning said it’s not fair, nor is it efficient, to just have a haphazard process like the one he’s seen used in the past. He said that, when it comes to CBO funding, the board needs to agree on a “sane way to do it.”
Halford, who seemed delighted that the budget process was wrapped up for this year, said the toughest thing about the last minute budget was balancing all the needs, such as foster care costs, more new school nurses, additional emergency service workers and juggling that with staff’s charge to keep the tax rate “even.”
Everyone seemed happy after the surprising unanimous vote was done. Some county staff went straight from the meeting at the Old Guilford County Court House to Natty Greene’s, and sources say that some county employees drank alcoholic beverages that night while there.