After fourth special budget meeting, commissioners still undecided on how to resolve remaining budget issues

A special meeting on Friday has failed to bring Alamance County’s board of commissioners any closer to a consensus on the county’s next annual budget.

The board’s members had shoehorned this meeting into their datebooks on Wednesday after three previously-scheduled “work sessions” had left them as baffled and conflicted as ever over a proposed spending plan that they had received from the county manager in May.

The commissioners had planned to use Friday’s get-together to massage out the remaining wrinkles in the manager’s plan ahead of the budget’s anticipated adoption on Monday. But while the budget is still slated to come up for a vote that evening, the commissioners have yet to address several of the key issues that had brought them back to the dais on Friday.

In order to expedite that afternoon’s proceedings, the county’s administrators had compiled these unresolved items into an action plan that the commissioners found waiting for them when they arrived in their meeting chambers.

Among other things, this staff-generated script presented the commissioners with a proposal based on a request for hiring bonuses that the sheriff’s office had pitched at an earlier work session.  In addition to extending these bonuses to sheriff’s jailers, the county’s administrators recommended similar incentives to fill high-turnover positions for social workers and paramedics. In each case, the staff assumed these bonuses would be paid for with lapsed salaries – with no net change to the bottom line of the county manager’s budget.

 

How much, if any, additional money for the school system?

In the meantime, the county’s administrators presented two competing options to reconcile the manager’s spending plan with a late-coming budget request from the Alamance-Burlington school system. Neither of these options incorporated the school system’s full ask of $10.3 million on top of the county’s current allotment.

One option proposed an additional $3,048,000 to cover the school system’s anticipated utility increases and provide preventative maintenance for the school system’s roofs and HVAC systems.

The other, which reflected a suggestion that commissioner Craig Turner had previously proffered, called for an extra $6,830,790 for the school system’s operations.

 

How much of a property tax hike?

A final point that the county’s administrators sought to clarify was the total outlay that the commissioners wanted from the county’s general fund – as well as the property tax rate they were willing to countenance to cover these costs. To this end, they presented the board a choice between the manager’s revised budget, which calls for a 2 cent hike in the current tax rate of 43.2 cents, and a 3.2-cent increase that would pay for a $3 million bump in the school system’s allowance.

The commissioners ultimately jettisoned the idea of hiring bonuses when commissioner Craig Turner suggested a variation on the staff’s plan that failed in a 2-to-3 vote. But the commissioner took no action on any of the other items that came before them on Friday.

Instead, the county’s governing board spent much of the 2-hour meeting rehashing old grudges and disputing issues that had nothing to do with the county’s next budget. They also pressed county staff for ways to increase their control over the school system’s spending, and they sparred with the school system’s superintendent over the results of a legislative inquiry into the school system’s finances.

 

Paisley questions ABSS projections, supt.’s reactions to legislative report

The recriminations between the county’s leaders and the school system began right off the bat with some introductory remarks from John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

Paisley, who had missed the previous work session due to illness, made up for lost time with an attack on the school system’s utility projections, which he deemed unreliable based on some figures from 2023 that the central office had recently shared with the commissioners.

Paisley then launched into a diatribe about the school system’s glib response to the aforementioned state inquiry, which a legislative commission initiated in the wake of a massive mold infestation last summer. The commissioners’ chairman recalled his dismay when heard William Harrison, the school system’s superintendent, write off this state-level probe as a “waste of taxpayer money” in an interview with a news station from Greensboro.

Paisley added that his chagrin was later echoed by state senator Amy Scott Galey, who had requested the General Assembly’s so-called “Gov Ops” commission to investigate the school system after questions emerged over its mold remediation contracts.

“We both were shocked that you would go on regional television and say ‘gee, golly nothing’s wrong,’” he recalled. “I found that absolutely confounding, and so did senator Galey.”

Paisley proceeded to blast the school system for its apparently cavalier attitude to finances, which he insisted is out of step with the realities which confront the county.

“We can’t fix things by going into LaLa Land or a Candy Land or whatever and give everybody everything they want. We five commissioners have an absolute obligation not only to the school system but to the taxpayers…We cannot open the doors to a fantasy wonderland.”

– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“We can’t fix things by going into LaLa Land or a Candy Land or whatever and give everybody everything they want,” he declared. “We five commissioners have an absolute obligation not only to the school system but to the taxpayers…We cannot open the doors to a fantasy wonderland.”

Paisley’s theme was later picked up by the board’s vice chairman Steve Carter, who insisted that the county should take measures to keep the school system financially accountable.

”People recognize that over the past couple of years they have not been appropriate stewards. ABSS needs to step up to the plate and clean up its act…and we need to clean up the problem with school performance.”

– County commissioner vice chairman Steve Carter

 

”People recognize that over the past couple of years they have not been appropriate stewards,” Carter went on to say of the school system’s top brass. “ABSS needs to step up to the plate and clean up its act…and we need to clean up the problem with school performance.”

These broadsides certainly got the attention of the superintendent, who was later given an opportunity to address some of these charges with the commissioners.

Harrison ultimately chided Paisley for his “misleading and inaccurate” criticism of the school system’s utility projections. He went on to infer that the commissioners’ chairman had drawn some faulty conclusions from a sample of last year’s utility costs that one of his subordinates had shared with the county’s leaders for illustrative purposes.

Harrison also took issue with the commissioners for their generally grim view of the school system’s sense of fiscal responsibility.

“Mr. Paisley, I don’t live in fantasy land. I know what I’m doing . . . I’m not coming in here trying for what I want. I’m trying for what I need.”

[With regard to legislative investigative report]  “What we got from them was a joke.  It epitomizes [the attitude that] ‘we’re from Raleigh; we’re here to help you.’”

– ABSS interim superintendent Dr. William Harrison

“Mr. Paisley,” he went on to address the commissioners’ chairman directly, “I don’t live in fantasy land. I know what I’m doing…I’m not coming in here trying for what I want. I’m trying for what I need.”

Harrison nevertheless acknowledged that Paisley had accurately recounted his response to the legislature’s financial inquiry. The interim superintendent stressed that, while he wasn’t at Alamance-Burlington when the state initiated the probe, he has had enough experience with legislative commissions to form a rather cynical impression of this particular investigations.

“What we got from them was a joke,” he added. “It epitomizes [the attitude that] ‘we’re from Raleigh; we’re here to help you.’”

Paisley’s criticism of the school system also received a rebuke from commissioner Pam Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before she won her current position in 2020.

When the commissioners finally turned their attention to the sheriff’s proposed hiring bonuses, Thompson seized on the chairman’s own rhetoric to lambaste the solicitousness that her fellow commissioners have shown for the county’s own departments and agencies.

“We have done raises [for our own county employees]. We have done bonuses, and we still have the same problem. That tells me this is not a money problem. We’re going to have some reality here. . . Every time somebody walks in the door, we can’t say ‘whatever you want, we got you.’”

– County commissioner Pam Thompson

 

“We have done raises. We have done bonuses, and we still have the same problem. That tells me this is not a money problem,” she went on to contend. “We’re going to have some reality here…Every time somebody walks in the door, we can’t say ‘whatever you want, we got you.’”

Ironically enough, Paisley declared himself to be in complete agreement with Thompson on this point. He went on to dispute the value of hiring bonuses as a tool for recruitment, and he recalled his own vote against these incentives when the rest of the board agreed to introduce them into social services a couple of years ago.

“There was a 4-to-1 vote on bonuses for social services, and I was the negative vote. I would not agree with such nonsense unless it was tied to a contract that required a 2-year commitment.”

“We tried this before it fell flatly on its face. Bonuses without contracts do not work…Why would we do something that hasn’t worked in the past?”

– County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“There was a 4-to-1 vote on bonuses for social services, and I was the negative vote,” he recalled. “I would not agree with such nonsense unless it was tied to a contract that required a 2-year commitment.”

Paisley reiterated his low opinion of hiring bonuses when commissioner Craig Turner attempted to push through a version of the proposal that the county’s administrators had included in their action plan for Friday’s meeting.

Turner informed the rest of the board that the county’s EMS director has told him he would prefer pay raises to signing bonuses for his paramedics. The commissioner consequently proposed a $8,000 signing bonus for jailers and social workers to be paid for in two installments – one at the point of hire, another a year into the staff member’s tenure.

Turner also suggested $2,000 salary increases for paramedics that he proposed to fund by knocking off a quarter of a percentage point from the 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment that the county manager had recommended for the county’s entire full-time work force.

This proposal nevertheless drew a swift dismissal from Paisley.

“We tried this before it fell flatly on its face,” he told Turner. “Bonuses without contracts do not work…Why would we do something that hasn’t worked in the past?”

“We have had holes in these department for several years,” Turner replied, “and these are the requests from the department heads for filling those holes.”

In the end, Turner could only persuade Carter to support his suggestion, which died due to opposition from Paisley, Thompson, and commissioner Bill Lashley.

In the meantime, the commissioners went back and forth on the prospect of increasing the school system’s allotment.

At one point, Rebecca Crawford, the county’s budget manager, polled the commissioners to see how many of them would be willing to add anything at all to the county’s current allocation to the schools. Thompson, Carter, and Turner all indicated their receptiveness to the idea, while Paisley and Lashley demurred. Even so, Lashley conceded that the county has a responsibility to cover the school system’s increased utility costs. Paisley, likewise, indicated he’d be amenable to adding a portion of this increase to the county manager’s budget.

Paisley went on to ask York to present the commissioners with two options before they make a final decision about the budget on Monday. He suggested that one option should be the manager’s recommendation while the other should include extra funds for the school system’s utilities.

“Please don’t have a third option,” he added.

Paisley nevertheless undercut his plea with a subsequent admission that he wanted a tax increase no greater than 1.8 cents – which threw a wrench into York’s spending plan with its 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

The commissioners were forced to confront another complication when they asked Harrison to predict what he’d do if he didn’t get his full budget request from the county.

“We would need to cut people,” the superintendent admitted. “We could cut our locally funded SROs…and that would save us about $1.8 million.”

The possibility that the school system would lay off school resource officers didn’t go over well with the commissioners’ vice chairman.

“We put those funds in there for the SROs,” he pointed out. “If we learned those would be cut, we would take those funds out of the budget.”

“But that’s not the way funding [for the school system’s operations] works,” the county manager replied. “We have no control over those decisions. We just give them a lump sum.”

Carter went on to push for some form of control over the school system’s budget, as did some of his fellow commissioners. The precise mechanism through which this control could be achieved initially eluded Alamance County Rik Stevens, although he agreed to meet with the school system’s administrators on Monday to discuss potential “guardrails” to keep the school system accountable.

In the meantime, York urged the commissioners to give her some sense of what they’d want to see on the table when they resume their discussion about the budget on Monday.

“The staff would need some direction in order to bring back a budget ordinance for adoption on Monday evening,” she explained. “Are you suggesting we wait ‘til Monday afternoon to get that direction? Or are we not ready to adopt on Monday evening.”

Paisley insisted that the commissioners should plan to approve the budget by the end of their meeting on Monday. But neither he nor any of the other commissioners would offer the county manager any precise guidance on the proposals to bring before them.

One breakthrough that did come out of Friday’s meeting concerned the rather strained relationship that has emerged between the school system and commissioner Bill Lashley.

These uneasy feelings grew even harder on Wednesday when Lashley denounced teachers and other school system supporters for their supposedly unsatiable yen for more money. His reference to them as “Kool-Aid drinkers” went over especially poorly – as Lashley acknowledged when he reflected on the episode Friday.

“I need to make an apology to the teachers for using the word ‘Kool-Aid drinkers,’” he went on to say. “It was a flippant comment…I knew I had stepped out of bounds – gotten over my skis, as I like to say…when I got a text from my sister at midnight asking ‘what are you thinking; why did you say that’…I promise you that, going forward, you won’t have to deal with that.”