The Guilford County Board of Commissioners has agreed on a budget deal that will keep county property taxes at current levels (though with a reduced tax rate), fund $5 million more in operating funds to Guilford County Schools and add nearly 30 new county positions, including a public relations specialist.

Budget tweaks may continue up until Thursday evening, June 15, when a final 2017-2018 county budget will be adopted, so last minute changes are always possible. However, as the Rhino Times went to press, all major aspects of the new county budget had been agreed upon if not set in stone.

On Wednesday, June 14, there was a last ditch effort by some Democratic commissioners to get the Republican commissioners to add $2 million to the operating budget for the school system, but it does not appear as though that effort will be successful.

The five Republican county commissioners who hold a majority on the nine-member board are all expected to vote in favor of the new 2017-2018 budget, and some Democratic commissioners may vote for it as well. The budget expected to be adopted totals $606.84 million, which is roughly $6 million more than the current budget adopted last year at this time.

The new budget deal lowers Guilford County’s property tax rate 2.45 cents – from 75.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 73.05 cents. However, that’s not a real tax decrease even though it looks like one because it keeps revenues from property taxes at current levels due to a recent countywide property revaluation that goes into effect this fiscal year.

The average property owner’s tax bill from the county should be the same; however, a particular property owner’s tax bill may be higher or lower depending on whether their property increased or decreased compared to the average. In most cases, property values increased during the revaluation, which is why the board has to reduce the tax rate to maintain the status quo regarding taxes.

Some Republican commissioners have made it a point to emphasize during the budget talks in the preceding weeks that keeping the county’s tax rate where it was would have been equivalent to imposing a large tax increase on county property owners.

Guilford County Schools had asked for $198.6 million of county money for school operations, which would have been $10.2 million more than in the 2016-2017 budget. The county budget that’s expected to be adopted on June 15 offers the school system $193.9 million for operations – $5 million more than in 2016-2017.   The new funding will move Guilford County’s per pupil funding from $2,419 per student to $2,439.

The majority of the school system’s budget, just over $716 million in 2016-2017, comes from the state.

The new 2017-2018 budget that commissioners plan to adopt Thursday night also includes $6.5 million for school maintenance and repair – $500,000 more than in the current budget. That falls $3.5 million short of the school system’s $10 million request for capital needs. In the final days of budget negotiations, one of the last remaining things that was under debate was the capital funding for the school system – though that number isn’t expected to change before a final budget is adopted.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing will be pleased that he’s getting something in this budget that he has asked for and been denied for years – a position dedicated to communicating with the public and raising awareness of the county government’s initiatives, events and positive achievements. The new “communications specialist” will fall under the clerk to the board’s office.

For years, Lawing has wanted a public information officer (PIO) as well as an assistant position to help handle those duties. While this is only one position, and it carries a different title and falls under the clerk, the communications specialist will in fact take on many of the duties Lawing has wanted to see covered.

The county commissioners have added some new positions to the proposed budget Lawing presented to the board in May. For instance, Lawing didn’t recommend adding any new emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or paramedics to the county’s payroll, however, the Board of Commissioners is expected to add 10 new Emergency Service positions to provide some of each.

Commissioner Alan Perdue was the director of Guilford County Emergency Services before being elected commissioner, and having him on the board helped that cause. Perdue has spoken ardently about the need for more EMTs in Guilford County to meet increasing demand.

The final 2017-2018 budget is expected to also include a new position for the Family Justice Center, which is seeing a large caseload. That addition may help pull in Democratic Commissioner Kay Cashion’s vote Thursday night.

In addition, the new budget deal includes adding five school nurse positions, with one of those being a supervisor. Guilford County Health Director Merle Green requested 10 new school nurse positions this year, while Lawing’s budget proposed adding four.

Lawing’s budget also included a new part-time Register of Deeds position that will allow the deeds office to be the only “walk-in” passport office in the county. The commissioners are expected to preserve funding for that position in the adopted budget because Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen has convinced them it will generate more revenue than it costs.

While the deeds office is getting what it wants, the commissioners aren’t expected to give Sheriff BJ Barnes a position he has been requesting to oversee the issuance and renewal of concealed carry permits in Guilford County. Barnes said that there are over 23,000 such permits in Guilford County, which is why the position is needed, but it doesn’t look like the sheriff will get his wish this year.

One area where the Democrats, when they were in control of the Board of Commissioners, were more taxpayer friendly than the Republicans in charge now is the unappropriated fund balance – essentially the county’s savings account. The Local Government Commission, which oversees the financial stability of local governments in North Carolina, is satisfied with counties keeping a minimum of 8 percent in this account; however, the Guilford County commissioners in the new budget will have over 13 percent in reserve.

The deal reached by the commissioners also includes funds for raises for county employees this year. The budget likely to be adopted will increase the funding available for raises by 3 percent – not as much as employees would like to see but it is something.

In May 2008, Guilford County citizens approved $457 million in a giant school bond referendum, and in June 2017, Guilford County is still paying back that debt – as it will be for another 10 years or so. The 2017-2018 county budget expected to be adopted includes about $75 million to pay off debt acquired for Guilford County Schools. About $7.3 million is for new debt issued this spring to fund school system projects.

Speaking of school costs, the budget likely to be adopted includes $300,000 to help fund a school facilities study that will examine building needs, district lines and other issues that contribute to school system costs. The commissioners hope the study will result in savings in future years by offering new administrative and construction strategies. The Board of Commissioners is participating jointly with Guilford County Schools in implementing that study.

The budget deal arrived at by the Republican commissioners calls for Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) to get just over $15 million in county dollars for its operating budget – an increase of $500,000 over fiscal 2016-2017. The budget will fund GTCC capital needs, money for maintenance and repair of facilities, for instance, at the same level as last year – $1.5 million. The anticipated budget will provide about $11 million in 2017-2018 to pay down debt acquired for construction and repairs at GTCC over the years.

The budget includes close to $50,000 for new furniture and video capabilities in the county manager’s conference room and in the human resources conference areas, as well as some funding for security guards for social services operations. It includes $242,000 for the medical and mental health needs of inmates and $80,000 in supplies for a new DNA crime lab run by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department.

About a decade ago, the board used to give a great deal of money away to charities, nonprofits and other organizations known as “community-based organizations” or “CBO’s,” but now that number has come down dramatically. However, a few pet projects are expected to get funded in the 2017-2018 budget under the guise of “tourism and economic development” expenditures.

The current county budget deal approves $20,000 to the Friends of John Coltrane for the annual jazz festival in High Point, $50,000 to the High Point Arts Council and $55,000 to the ArtsGreensboro.   It’s also expected to include $25,000 for the National Folk Festival held in downtown Greensboro each year.

And, of course, no Guilford County budget would be complete without the central pillar of economic development – the African American Atelier in downtown Greensboro. That museum, which will get $50,000 in county taxpayer money in this budget, is run by 12th District Congresswoman Alma Adams, who’s good friends with Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, which is one big reason the atelier gets county money every year.

The budget deal for 2017-2018 includes $40,000 for downtown Greensboro Inc. and $20,000 for East Greensboro Now, which formerly went by the name of East Market Street Development Corp. It also includes $100,000 for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and the same amount for the High Point Economic Development Corp. The budget gives $75,000 to the High Point Market Authority to help put on the furniture market and it ponies up another $100,000 for the county to continue its membership in the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA).

Each of those payments to cultural and economic development organizations is staying the same as it was in the Guilford County budget adopted last year.

The Republican commissioners took control of the Board of Commissioners in December 2012 when they gained a 5-to-4 majority. Since then, the board has slightly decreased the county’s tax rate and, earlier in the budget process this year, some were hoping to perhaps offer a small tax cut in this budget, but several commissioners said this week that the thing that made that unfeasible this year is that $160 million in new debt issued a few months ago: $130 million for the Guilford County Schools and $30 million for GTCC.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that paying off that new debt was a real blow to hopes of another tax cut in this budget.

“The biggest issue is addressing debt service obligations,” the chairman said.

Phillips also said that increasing demands on the human services sector also put pressure on the county’s pocketbook.

He said that Lawing brought the commissioners a largely appealing budget this year and he said that made the process easier.

“I think he did a good job of listening to the board this year,” Phillips said.

Commissioner Perdue said the 2017-2018 budget doesn’t give everyone everything they want, but that’s because there simply wasn’t enough money to fund every desire.

“I support more money for the schools,” Perdue said, “but I think the key to this is that we have other obligations.”

Several commissioners said sales tax revenues had increased and the economy is doing better but that there was still a lot caution since the economy could turn south and they don’t want to be caught in a position down the road where they are forced to raise taxes.

Commissioner Alan Branson said that, during the budget debates over increasing school costs, he started looking at the school salaries published in the June 1 Rhino Times and said he saw so many administers making well over $100,000 that he was taken aback.

“In the corporate world it would probably be considered heavily weighted to the top,” Branson said.

Another thing that’s interesting about the new budget the county is expected to adopt this week is that, more so than any previous year, the commissioners’ final budget sticks very close to the budget that Lawing presented.

“Probably since we’ve been on the board, his presentation was one of the best ones I’ve seen,” Branson said. “Marty is getting to know the way we roll.”

Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that school officials seem to be under a misconception.

“There’s an assumption made,” Henning said, “that we have all the money, we’re just not giving it to them.”

He said the truth is that the money simply isn’t there.

He added that, historically, the state’s counties were responsible for funding school facilities but no so much for operations, but more and more counties are being looked to to make up school funding shortfalls.

Henning said school leaders have to keep in mind that a lot of money in the current budget – in addition to roughly $200 million in operating and capital funds – goes to the school system through repayment of school bond debt.

“That’s always overlooked,” Henning said of the bond repayment contributions to county education.

Since charter schools in Guilford County have been growing in students while Guilford County Schools’ student population has stayed relatively flat, more of the new county money each year that would have gone to Guilford County Schools is passed along to charter schools. Henning said the real question is why parents are choosing to send their children to charter schools rather than the county school system. He said he had a great deal of “hope and confidence” in Guilford County’s Superintendent of Schools Sharon Contreras, who took that job last year, but he added that there’s is a lot to recover from due to “bad policy of the past.”

Henning also pointed out that another big dent in county money came from much needed capital projects including repairs of the Old Guilford County Court House, a new animal shelter and a new Emergency Services facility.

“Previous boards kicked the can down the road,” the Republican commissioner stated of those needs.

Henning said the Republicans have been bringing down the tax rate, contributing money to a pay-as-you-go capital plan and increasing the money each year for the schools, including some funds for employee raises – all while paying down the county’s debt.

“It was a billion dollars in debt and now it’s been lowered to $600 million while nearly doubling our reserve fund,” Henning said.

Guilford County staff like having a lot of extra money on hand in the reserve fund for purposes of liquidity and a higher bond rating and to have money on hand for any new projects that occur to them. That money also makes it less likely that the commissioners would have to raise taxes suddenly in case of a catastrophe or a very bad economy.

Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston said he may very well vote for the budget Thursday night, though he would like to have seen more given to the schools for operating expenses.

Alston used to have great deal of say – almost complete control – over what went into the budget, but now he is back in the minority on the Board of Commissioners.

“I don’t like it but I can deal with it,” the former five-time chairman of the board said.

Alston said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the working relationship with the Republicans on the board so far and that it was important for the Republicans and himself to put people before politics when making these critical decisions.

Alston also said that he wants to know more about what the county is getting for the $100,000 it contributes to GCEDA.

That $606.84 million is the total of Guilford County’s operating budget – which is what’s used to operate general county services. Each year the county also sees some additional “pass through” money for fire district budgets and a hotel occupancy tax. Those items aren’t traditionally included in the county budget totals, but if they were the whole shebang would equal $631.6 million this year.