In April of 2020, a group of extremely worried county commissioners and county staff met for a morning agenda planning meeting right as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming felt.
It was a time when the future was terrifying – not just in terms of loss of life, but also in terms of what would happen to Guilford County’s finances.
At that meeting, there were real concerns that Guilford County government might not even be able to pay its power bills in the times to come.
So, it’s somewhat astonishing that, two and a half years later, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is in a position it’s likely never been in before – having more money to spend than it knows what to do with.
Three things led to the gigantic windfall: A county revaluation at the exact moment when housing prices were sky high, wads of federal and state money coming in to the county, and the passage of one of the largest school bonds in the history of America.
Throw into that mix the fact that the county is getting funds from a major lawsuit against the opioid industry and the county suddenly finds itself sitting on so much money that the board has had to work during the usually slow months of July and August, meeting frequently to figure out how to spend the boat loads of money being thrown at them.
When Republican commissioners held a majority on the board during the previous countywide revaluation that led to higher housing prices, the board held the county’s property taxes “revenue neutral” – meaning that the board lowered the tax rate to the level where property tax revenue was equal to the revenue of the previous year (other than taking into account actual new tax base growth).
This year, the Democrat-led Board of Commissioners touted the fact that it was not raising the tax rate– so, many people didn’t realize that their county tax bills were actually going to be much higher even at the old tax rate. Since the board didn’t lower the tax rate and property values shot up, that added about $92 million in extra money for the commissioners to play with. County residents essentially experienced a hidden tax increase of astronomical proportions – about 14 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
When Guilford County Manager Mike Halford was the county’s budget director for years under the Republican-led Board of Commissioners, he would often hint at the need for a tax increase. However, even when he mentioned an increase of 1 cent, he would get radio silence from the five Republicans who controlled the board. The Republicans, in fact, actually lowered property taxes during their eight years in power.
Along with that new $92 million from property taxes, Guilford County received over $104 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) money that it has been spending on a wide variety of things.
On top of that, county voters approved a $1.7 billion school bond referendum in May of this year – right on the heels of a $300 million school bond that passed in 2020. That money greatly reduces the county’s capital need contributions for the schools from the general budget and frees up county money for other purposes.
So, Guilford county has found itself with about $200 million in extra money in 2022, and, in the coming years, $2 billion in school bond funds. The county also received an infusion of federal money earlier in the pandemic.
Those county staff and commissioners in that scary meeting in April of 2020 could have never imagined how things would turn out two years later. In essence, Guilford County officials have ended up in the exact opposite place than that they thought they would. It turned out that the county officials had nothing to fear.
In fact, the county commissioners felt so good about things last year that they voted themselves a 50 percent salary increase. So, things are turning out fine for the county commissioners.
Now, as for the people who pay property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes – well, that’s a story for another time.