The most important thing that happens in Guilford County government each year is the adoption of a county budget, and a major step in the process happened at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, May 17 meeting:

County Manager Marty Lawing presented his proposed budget for fiscal 2018-2019. In that budget, he recommended no property tax increase, $8.5 million in additional funding for Guilford County Schools’ operations and capital projects, along with funds for an average 3 percent merit-based pay increase for county employees.

Lawing’s fiscal 2018-2019 proposed county budget totals $616,459,260, which is roughly $8 million more than the budget the Guilford County Board of Commissioners approved last June for fiscal 2017-2018.

At the May 17 board meeting, Lawing told the commissioners that the budget focuses on essential services. He said expenditures for education, human services and public safety account for nine of every 10 dollars in the new budget. Lawing also said it advances several of the board’s stated priorities, including increased funding for Guilford County Schools, more school nurses, and additional funding for Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) despite attendance drops in recent years.   The proposed budget also provides more money for the county’s fight against the opioid addiction epidemic that’s been hitting residents very hard recently.

The five Republican commissioners on the board – including Chairman Alan Branson – had made it crystal clear to Lawing that they didn’t want to see a tax increase in the budget, and there isn’t one. Lawing’s budget recommends keeping Guilford County’s property tax rate at 73.05 cents per $100 of assessed property value, unchanged from the current tax rate. Though the tax rate remains the same, Guilford County’s property tax base has grown about 1.8 percent through new construction since the last budget and that base is now appraised at $51.5 billion. With the new growth over the last 12 months, county finance officials expect Guilford County to pull in an additional $6.6 million in property tax revenue while keeping the rate the same.

The Republicans won a 5-to-4 majority on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in 2012 after 14 years of Democratic control of the board; and, over the last six years, the commissioners have either voted a property tax cut or left the rate the same. In the years before that, the Democratically controlled board would commonly raise taxes – sometimes by two or three cents a year or more. But with Lawing’s budget not even suggesting a tax increase for 2018-2019, property owners can rest easy that there won’t be a tax increase this year. It’s too early in the process to tell if the county’s taxpayers will get a tax cut. The Republican board would certainly like to see the tax rate drop this year.

It will take some time for the commissioners to examine the manager’s budget in detail, but right after the presentation, Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad said, “My initial thoughts were positive. It checked off a lot of boxes for me.”

There will be a lot of discussion and public input before a final 2018-2019 budget is approved.

At the May 17 meeting, the board scheduled a Tuesday, May 29 work session to discuss the budget as well as a public hearing, on Thursday, June 7, for the board to receive input from citizens.

One of the most debated aspects of the county’s budget every year is how much to give to the Guilford County Schools. Over the last decade, the percentage of the county’s budget that goes to the schools has been increasing, and it creeps up again in Lawing’s proposed budget. In his recommended 2018-2019 budget, 45.9 percent of the county’s total budget goes toward the county’s school system compared to 45.3 percent in the current budget.

The Guilford County Board of Education requested $206.4 million in county funds for the schools’ operating budget in 2018-2019. Lawing’s budget proposes to give the county’s school system $201.9 million. That’s $4.5 million less than the schools asked for – but it’s an increase of $6 million in operating funds over the current budget adopted last June, which provided the schools with $196 million.

If Lawing’s budget is adopted, it would increase Guilford County’s average per pupil funding from $2,464 to $2,517 per student.

In the current fiscal year, the average per pupil funding for counties across the state comes out to $1,677 per student.

The Republican county commissioners – especially when running for reelection – are always eager to point out to citizens that the Republican-led board has increased funding for Guilford County Schools every year since gaining a majority of the board’s seats in 2012, and, while school officials are always displeased with anything short of their request, if one looks back over the last years, there’s been a steady increase in funding for school operations – and the manager’s budget this year would continue that trend if adopted.

That said, school funding is one of the budget numbers that very often does get changed between the manager’s proposal and the final county budget approved by the commissioners. Given the manager’s proposed budget, however, it’s a safe bet the schools will get millions more this year from Guilford County than the school system got last year, though the final number could be more or less than Lawing recommends.

Each year, the county’s school system also requests the county provide the schools with funds for capital expenditures such as building repair and maintenance. In the budget Lawing proposed at the May 17 meeting, the county’s schools would get $7.5 million in capital funds from Guilford County – an increase of $2.5 million over the current budget, but a number that’s only about half of the $14.4 million in capital funds the schools are requesting from Guilford County this year.

The budget also provides some additional funding for GTCC. With workforce development being a major component of area economic development recruitment, county officials and economic development leaders have been putting a lot of emphasis on vocational training programs at the community college – especially those related to advanced manufacturing. Lawing also argued that GTCC needs more funds for operations.

“We’re recommending an additional $1 million for operations, and capital would remain at the $1.5 million we’ve appropriated for the last several years,” Lawing said.

With $1 million added to the operating budget, GTCC would get just over $16 million in county funds for operations.

Some of the county’s 2018-2019 budget will go toward paying down the debt from school bonds, community college bonds and jail bonds approved by voters in 2008. Lawing said those payments are lower than before and the county should spend about $2.5 million less for that paydown in 2018-2019 than it did in 2017-2018.

“That’s primarily due to principle reduction and the way the amortization schedules fluctuate,” Lawing told the board.

As for the county’s health and social services operations – now united under a Guilford County Health and Human Services Department – there’s an overall decrease of $1.75 million in the budget – but only because there’s a change in the way the state pays the costs of child day care services for those who qualify. The state has started paying child care providers directly for eligible child day care expenses rather than pass that money through the county. As a result of the change, about $5.6 million has been removed from the county’s social services budget.

Even when it comes to the human services portion of the county budget, Guilford County is paying more to school related costs. Lawing’s recommended budget includes $373,000 to fund five new school nurses and to purchase school tele-medicine video equipment. About $50,000 of the $373,000 will be used to purchase that equipment to increase the reach of school nurses across the system. Plans are for the five new nurses to be assigned to schools with the highest healthcare needs.

A dramatic increase in foster care costs in recent years has hit Guilford County social services hard and Lawing’s proposed budget includes, among other funds for that purpose, $400,000 in new money for an adoption program meant to encourage more permanent placements in families of children currently in the county’s care.

Guilford County’s mental health services are administered out of Sandhills Center in West End, North Carolina. The recommended budget maintains funding for Sandhills’ services at $9.7 million. In addition to overseeing the administration of standard mental health services, that money is also used to fund Guilford County’s Mental Health Court, the Adult Drug Treatment Court and the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court, which are all administered by the Sandhills’ management entity.

Lawing recommended the 2018-2019 budget include $111.8 million for public safety services, which includes the Sheriff’s Department as well as Emergency Services. That would be an increase of $3 million over the money for public safety allocated in the budget adopted for fiscal 2017-18. Some of that will go toward the purchase of new squad cars and ambulances and other public service vehicles.

“We’re recommending 39 replacement vehicles with an estimated cost of a little over $1.3 million,” Lawing said during his May 17 presentation.

The new $3 million in public safety money also includes funding for the first full year of 10 paramedic positions that the Board of Commissioners approved during the current fiscal year.

In recent years, county officials have been concerned about security in its buildings – especially those that handle social services – and the budget includes money for more guards.

“We’ll have $190,000 included in our security budget to enhance building security services,” Lawing told the commissioners.

The manager’s proposed budget also includes $250,000 in county funds to operate the Family Justice Center in High Point. That center is now being built inside the Guilford County Courthouse in High Point and is expected to open later this year.

The county finally seems to have the Guilford County Animal Shelter on the right track, but getting there hasn’t been cheap. It hired a new Animal Services director last year who’s making $120,000 a year and the new proposed budget includes funding for both Animal Control and the shelter through $294,400. According to Lawing, that includes $113,000 for various shelter supplies – as well as funds for maintenance to keep the shelter functioning until the planned replacement facility is finished.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman fights mightily each year to get higher pay for county employees and, to that end, the proposed budget includes funds for employee raises averaging 3 percent. If the final budget ends up with the new money included for merit raises, those pay increases would be awarded starting in January 2019. An employee might get more or less than 3 percent “based on individual and overall department performance scores.”

The net cost of increasing the merit pay that percentage for the fiscal year is roughly $3.75 million.

The manager’s recommended budget includes ample funding for the county’s savings account in case of unforeseen events. State finance officials recommend a minimum of 8 percent of county government’s budgets be held in an unappropriated fund balance. Lawing’s budget would put Guilford County savings account – known as the unassigned general fund balance – at 14 percent.

If revenue projections for the coming fiscal year hold, Guilford County will also have more money coming in 2018-2019 from other sources besides property taxes. After property taxes, sales tax revenues are the second largest source of county funds and, according to the new budget estimates, the county will get $91 million from sales taxes in 2018-2019 – $5.4 million higher than the amount in the current budget.   That’s roughly a 6 percent increase in sales tax revenues.

User fees and charges are expected to bring in about $40 million in 2018-19. The Sheriff’s Department fees, for instance, are expected to provide $320,000 more than in 2017-2018. Most of that comes from the state and federal governments, which pay Guilford County to keep their inmates in Guilford County’s jails. Revenues from Emergency Services fees are also expected to increase by just over a quarter of a million dollars, mostly due to continued increases in service calls.

Now that Lawing’s proposed budget is in the hands of the county commissioners, they are looking it over and just beginning to negotiate on the final budget.

Commissioner Alan Perdue said of the budget this week, “There’s some evaluation needed in a couple of areas.”

Commissioner Jeff Phillips also said he and the board have a lot of work to do before a final budget is adopted in June.

“It’s time for the board to deliberate further, dig a little deeper and hash out the details,” Phillips said.