It’s been ten years since Guilford County took on a massive debt for the school system, the community college system and the jail. The county will be paying off that debt for years to come, but the Republican-led board now in charge is taking a much harder look at what new debt the county accumulates.
The Republicans took power six years ago and have shown little desire to get the county deep into debt again.
Since the Republicans won a majority on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in 2012, Guilford County has paid down its total debt by nearly $150 million – from an all-time high of $957 million in fiscal 2011-2012, to a current level of about $808 million.
From 1998 until 2012, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners was ruled by a Democratic majority and the amount of money Guilford County owed increased steadily – as did the property tax rate over that same period.
A decade ago, in fiscal 2008-2009, the county’s total debt was $715 million. A year later, it hit $850 million before the debt level dropped by $40 million in 2010-2011. It then shot up to $957 million in fiscal 2011-2012 – just months before the Republican majority took over.
Much of that debt picture has been driven by what happened in early 2008: The Board of Commissioners controlled by Democrats voted to put a slew of large bond referendums on the ballot. The bonds approved by voters in the May 2008 primary election consisted of two school bonds totaling $457 million, a $115-million bond for a new jail and an $80-million bond for Guilford Technical Community College. (A $20-million parks and recreation bond also on the ballot that year didn’t pass.)
Ever since, those bonds have constituted a huge part of the county’s debt but other decisions by the Democrats in charge played a role as well: Those include loans the county took out, expensive property purchases and the use of “two-thirds bonds,” which allowed the county to turn around and borrow two-thirds of the money it had just paid off in the previous fiscal year.
Several Republican commissioners pointed to the expenditure of $8 million in 2009 for a building in High Point that was clearly worth only a fraction of that amount as just one example of financial irresponsibility by a previous board.
Republican Commissioner Hank Henning said he believed that the county had managed to do some very practical things under Republican rule that clearly weren’t being done before. When he first took his seat in December 2012 and saw how county government was being run, he said he was astonished at the way money was being spent and at the lack of oversight he encountered.
This week Henning cited two current examples of a change in philosophy that’s taken place since then: He said that the county is determining employee raises – for the employees the board oversees – in a rational merit-based way whereas in the past that process was largely haphazard under the Democratically controlled board.
Henning also said he and other commissioners are currently taking a very hard look at how school system money is being spent and he questioned the extent to which that oversight was there prior to 2012.
Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips said that, now, anytime it comes to an issue of spending county money, he always tries to look very carefully at the project, determine if it’s absolutely necessary and, if so, he said, he tries to find the most affordable way to meet the need.
Several Republican commissioners said this week they were pleased Guilford County had been able to pay down the debt without any tax increases.