The Guilford County commissioners make about $1,700 a month for their service as elected officials, and this month they’re actually earning that money: The commissioners are in the midst of a difficult decision-making process as to exactly how Guilford County should spend $600 million plus in the 2018-2019 fiscal budget the board will pass this June.
Two weeks ago, the board received the new recommended budget from Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing – a budget that totals $616 million and proposes to keep the tax rate flat. At this point, the commissioners have had time to sift through the massive document, review some of the details and discuss the proposal with each other in work sessions and private conversations.
On Thursday, June 7, the commissioners will listen to citizens’ thoughts on the upcoming budget during a public hearing in the Old Guilford County Court House. That hearing will be followed by one or more work sessions as the board continues to bang out a final budget.
The commissioners got plenty of input on the budget in a long work session on Tuesday, May 29, when they heard from county department heads, Guilford County Schools officials and others, who, for the most part, said the manager’s budget didn’t go far enough in funding their departments or organizations.
At the work session, the board also heard from county budget and finance officials on the costs in fiscal 2018-2019 of several planned new county construction projects. Those initiatives include a new animal shelter, an emergency services maintenance facility and major renovations to the old jail in downtown Greensboro in order to transform it into the new Sheriff’s Department headquarters.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson joked this week that, given all the requests the board is getting lately, there’s only one solution.
“I guess we’ll just have to have a 5-cent tax increase,” Branson joked.
Every penny added to the county’s property rate – that is, every 1-cent tax hike per $100 of assessed property value – brings in about $5 million in additional annual revenue. However, the cold hard truth about Branson’s joke is that even $25 million more wouldn’t be enough to give everyone what they’re asking for.
Any tax increase at all is a moot point anyway because the board hasn’t raised property taxes since the Republicans won a majority on the nine-member board in 2012 – in fact, most years it’s lowered taxes – and it was obvious at the May 29 work session that the current group of Republican commissioners in control has no plans to raise property taxes this time around.
One exchange between Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston and Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips demonstrated where the Republicans are on a tax increase for 2018-2019. The board was discussing a need to find $4.8 million in additional funds to pay the cost of construction projects if the commissioners wanted them all done.
Alston, who had no problem raising taxes in his county budgets when he was chairman of the board, said. “A 1-cent tax increase would take care of all of it.”
That remark brought laughter from some commissioners, especially the Republicans.
Alston looked a little hurt at the immediate and unambiguous reaction.
“I’m just saying that’s an option,” Alston added quickly.
Phillips stared straight at him and said, “No, it’s not,” and then looked over to the media table and said, “And you can quote me on that.”
Other Republicans, such as Commissioner Alan Perdue, also kidded Alston about even suggesting such a crazy idea.
That one moment should allow county property owners to rest easy in the knowledge there won’t be a tax increase in the county budget this year, but the jury is still out on whether the Board of Commissioners will be able to deliver a tax decrease in 2018-2019 as the board has done in most of the years since the Republicans took over in 2012. Not having a tax increase is a great thing – however, it means the board has to look hard to find savings in the budget.
One strategy county officials discussed at the May 29 work session was building the county’s planned Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility in two or three phases rather than all at once. The problem with that, Lawing told the board, is it would drive the overall price tag a lot higher.
“I asked the architect, if we build the EMS facility in two or three phases, would it cost us more, and they said, ‘Absolutely, no question about it,’” Lawing told the board.
Guilford County Emergency Services has listed the facility as a serious need for nearly two decades. They are anxious to get it complete and fully operational, but the $20-million price tag for the project is a lot of money to spend in a two-year period.
The commissioners also have the option of finding money for new construction by cutting costs in other areas, dipping into the county’s savings account or selling bonds, which is the way the county borrows money.
Guilford County’s savings account, known as the “unappropriated fund balance” will be 14 percent of the total county budget if the manager’s proposed budget is adopted unchanged. North Carolina recommends local governments keep a minimum of 8 percent of their budget in unappropriated funds for an emergency and to preserve liquidity.
In addition to hearing the need for construction and renovation of county facilities at the work session, the board also heard from the group that gets about 46 percent of the county’s budget each year – Guilford County Schools. School officials made it clear at the meeting that, in their view, the county needs to provide more funding to the schools than Lawing proposed.
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 giving the schools $201.9 million, an increase of $6 million in operating funds over the current budget.
The schools also want much more money for building repairs and maintenance. In the budget Lawing proposed, the schools would get $7.5 million in capital funds from Guilford County – an increase of $2.5 million over what was appropriated last June. However, the schools requested $14.4 million in capital funds from Guilford County this year. That means the county would have to come up with another $7 million to fully fund the capital request. That alone would equate to more than a 1-cent increase on the property tax rate if everything else in the budget remained the same.
At the work session, held in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said one reason behind the need for more money is student safety and security.
“It’s making sure we have command center personnel and equipment that can communicate effectively with central office and law enforcement,” she told the board.
Contreras said the schools currently rely on outdated methods of communication and need new software that will help school officials communicate with each other and with law enforcement agencies in emergencies.
“We are using email instead of technology and solutions to communicate effectively between the 127 schools, and the other facilities, to make certain that information and incidents are shared,” she said. “So we want to make sure we have incident management software and that we are communicating with law enforcement more effectively.”
In addition to security concerns – heightened by the recent school shootings – school officials also want to see more county money provided for salary and benefits for teachers, assistant principals, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others.
Teachers are receiving 6.5 percent average increase from the state and all state employees are receiving at least a 2 percent pay increase. Principals are getting an average 6.9 percent increase in the state budget.
Contreras said one complaint is that, as soon as a principal is successful at one school, he or she will seek to move to a larger school because the compensation is better there. The school system, the superintendent said, wants to have a pool of money to provide more pay to good principals who stay at the same school to cut down on turnover among school principals.
The superintendent cited plenty of other needs as well. She said there was an increase in the cost of liability insurance and she added that some federal grant money was being phased out and important programs that should be continued would lose federal grant money as a funding source.
Textbook costs always come up at budget request time and this year has been no exception.
“It’s important to note that, in a district this size, it cost about $15 million for a textbook adoption,” Contreras said. “We receive about $3 million a year from the state for textbook adoption, which is the amount you need for textbook replacement. That’s why we haven’t been able to actually do a textbook adoption in about 15 years in the district – because we just don’t receive enough.”
School funding is one item that frequently gets a big adjustment either up or down when the commissioners approve a budget each year, so school officials may have some hope of getting more money in the final 2018-2019 budget. However, at the May 29 work session, they weren’t given many clues as to what the commissioners were thinking.
The commissioners did have some comments for the school officials in the room, though.
Commissioner Kay Cashion, who recently read to a classroom of young students, said she was very impressed with the learning aids and posters in the classroom and she mentioned that to the teacher.
“I asked about all these examples from around the room – the teaching aids that she had up,” Cashion said. “She explained to me that she had bought all those herself.”
Cashion said that, in addition to other items, the teacher had purchased three cases of paper with her own money this school year for class projects.
One commissioner, Democratic Commissioner Carlvena Foster, is always pushing for more county funding for the school system. Foster served as a Guilford County school board member before becoming a commissioner and it shows constantly every time a school issue comes before the board. She did so at the May 29 work session as well.
“We need to, as county commissioners, take some more initiative and try to fund the schools at the level that they are asking,” Foster pleaded to her fellow commissioners. “The schools have given us a very detailed report and budget request, so I think we need to get past what we’ve been thinking in the past – of how they operate and how they spend this money – and look at how we can improve the quality of education in this county. That’s my soapbox.”
While Foster wanted to see more money given to the schools, Commissioner Justin Conrad proposed an interesting idea for the money already proposed in Lawing’s budget.
“I would recommend $2.5 million be allocated toward school security needs,” Conrad said.
He was talking about the $2.5 million in additional funds the county manager has already included in the proposed budget. Conrad said the results from a new school facilities study will be known this September and that’s going to provide a lot of new information on the best way to improve security. He said it’s therefore a good idea to have the funds set aside for that purpose.
“We put some money into the capital fund and when we get the results back [from the study], we will see that they have seed money for security.” Conrad said. “I don’t think anybody, certainly in this room, believes that security is not the most pressing issue that we have with our children, so putting a meaningful amount of money aside and designating it for that purpose – I think that’s the right thing for this board to do.”
That idea no doubt makes school officials anxious because it would remove any other options for the $2.5 million in new capital money the manager’s budget is offering this year.
Guilford County Schools isn’t the only school system in the county that wants more money than Lawing proposed: Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) President Randy Parker spoke at the work session on the needs of the community college.
In the recommended budget, Lawing proposed increasing the operating funding for GTCC by $1 million – to a total of just over $16 million. That’s despite the fact that the college’s enrollment is falling and has been for years. Student enrollment at GTCC usually rises or falls with the unemployment rate, which just hit an 18-year low nationally.
At the work session, it was the first question asked.
“What are your enrollment numbers looking like,” Foster asked.
Parker responded, “All combined, we’re serving in the neighborhood of about 35,000 students.”
Alston asked for more clarification. He wanted to know how that compared with previous years.
“It’s actually down,” Parker told the board. “During the Great Recession we were serving over 45,000, and, as people are getting jobs and the economy has turned around, that number has dropped and we’re down to in that neighborhood of 34,000 or 35,000.”
No commissioner asked the obvious question of why GTCC needs more money when enrollment has fallen more than 20 percent in the last decade, but one explanation to that question can be found in a letter that GTCC Chief Financial Officer Nancy Sollosi sent to Lawing in March. She stated the GTCC needs additional funding largely for operating the Advanced Manufacturing Center, which opens in the fall. She also stated a need for more money for “on-going operating costs of new facilities, as well as other college expenses for which the county is responsible for funding.”
The letter said GTCC would also like to make its teacher and employee benefits more competitive to attract and to maintain staff.
Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford said after the work session that many of GTCC’s costs – such as heating and cooling buildings – are fixed and don’t decrease even when the student population falls.
Other needs that were expressed by some county officials at the work session included more school nurses, new elections machines and better pay for the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff BJ Barnes told the commissioners that he’s been losing officers to other agencies and he said it’s especially hard to hold on to detention officers.
Alston has proposed creating a new director level position to improve the county’s use of minority and woman-owned businesses for services and supplies. One less expensive option Guilford County Purchasing Department Officials discussed at the work session was hiring an intern who would help with that effort at a cost of about $8,000 year.
The county’s legal and tax officials also want to beef up their foreclosure efforts by adding a new position. The county has a huge backlog of houses under foreclosure due to a failure by the owners to pay property taxes.
The commissioners do have a little extra money to work with this year as they form the budget. With the new construction and other growth in the county’s tax base over the past 12 months, county finance officials expect Guilford County to pull in an additional $6.6 million in property tax revenue despite keeping the tax rate the same. The new budget also estimates Guilford County will get $5.4 million more in 2018-2019 from sales taxes than in the budget year that ends June 30 of this year.