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Turner, Carter, Thompson push through new budget with 3.66-cent property tax rate hike, 3-2

Dissenters Paisley, Lashley tried for smaller, 2-cent property rate hike, but were defeated 2-3

Alamance County’s commissioners have narrowly approved a budget for the new fiscal year that increases the county’s annual allocation to the local school system by nearly $6 million while boosting the property tax rate by 3.66 cents, or about 8.47 percent.

The new budget, which passed in a 3-to-2 vote on Monday, calls for a grand total of $225 million in outlays from the county’s general fund – or roughly $10 million more than the fund’s current expenditures.

This sum includes $59.5 million for the Alamance-Burlington school system, $5.4 million for Alamance Community College, and increases in the county’s own payroll budget to provide staff with a 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment and a merit-based pay raise that averages out to an additional 2 percent increase.

In order to cover the general fund’s growing expenditures, the new budget increases the county’s property tax rate from 43.2 to 46.86 cents for every $100 of value. It also relies on $7,350,000 from the county’s fund balance, or saving account, as a budgetary stop gap to offset an expected slowdown in the county’s sales tax receipts.

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This spending plan was ultimately adopted with the support of commissioners Craig Turner, Pam Thompson and Steve Carter – notwithstanding the opposition of commissioner Bill Lashley and John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

Although both he and Lashley objected to the scale of the new budget’s tax hike, Paisley nevertheless expressed a desire to put the budget to bed when he and his colleagues turned their attention to the county’s next budget on Monday.

“We’ve almost beat this horse to death,” the board’s chairman said at the start of that evening’s debate. “We’ve had four work sessions, and it’s been discussed at length among the five of us. . . So, at this point we can have further discussion, or we can have a motion and a vote.”

 

A stormy budget season

This year’s budget had, indeed, been a long, hard slog for both the county’s leaders and the school system’s top brass. In each case, these institutions have been dogged by financial and political challenges that have conspired to make this budget season a particularly agonizing experience for everybody concerned.

In the school system’s case, the budget’s preparation has been marred by spending decisions that date back to the height of the coronavirus pandemic as well as a massive mold infestation last summer that led to millions of dollars in cleanup expenses. This run of bad luck was exacerbated by a recent state-level inquiry into the school system’s finances and an administrative exodus that included the abrupt departure of former superintendent Dain Butler in March.

In the meantime, the county has faced its own bevy of woes, with persistent turnover in some county departments and a drop off in its once-reliable sales tax receipts. These complications have occurred in the backdrop of an election year for Paisley and Thompson while Turner has cranked up his own electoral campaign for one of the county’s district court judgeships.

This perfect storm of exigencies has been heightened by the increasingly tempestuous relations between the county’s leaders and their counterparts within the school system. These ill feelings have continued since Butler’s departure as superintendent, and the continued friction under his interim successor William Harrison has come in stark contrast to the reproachment that Harrison had overseen during an earlier turn as superintended, which ended in 2018.   [See separate story in this edition. https://alamancenews.com/commissioner-chairman-chides-interim-supt-for-dismissive-response-to-legislative-investigative-report/]

 

The horns of a dilemma

Harrison’s return to the Alamance-Burlington school system got off to a rocky start when the school system’s administrators failed to meet a state-imposed deadline to submit their budget request to the county by May 15.

For lack of a current request from the schools, Alamance County’s manager Heidi York approached the commissioners on May 20 with a spending plan that effectively recycled the school system’s previous allocation.

The schools belatedly sent in a proposed budget that called for an extra $10.3 million in funds from the county for operations –  plus York had already penciled in an additional $600,000 in capital expenses on top of an annual allocation of $3.3 million, for a total capital budget of $3.9.

Even with a flat allocation for the school system, York’s budget called for a 2-cent property tax increase that caused a fair amount of squirming among the all-Republican board of commissioners. At the same time, her proposed allotment for the school system set off a hue and cry among public education boosters, who converged on the county’s meeting chambers when York presented her spending plan and returned in even greater numbers when the proposed budget came up for a public hearing earlier this month.

The school system’s supporters were likewise out in full force when the commissioners gathered together at the county’s headquarters on Monday. They also comprised most of the 11 public speakers who took advantage of the public comment period which kicked off that evening’s proceedings.

 

An accommodation emerges

The budget which the commissioners ultimately adopted includes a large chunk of the school system’s request to the county – albeit at the cost of an additional 1 2/3 cents on the property tax rate above York’s originally-suggested tax rate.

The particulars of this compromise were stitched together by Turner, more or less off the cuff, based on measures that he and his fellow commissioners had discussed during four so-called “work sessions” on the county manager’s budget over the previous two weeks.

Among Turner’s suggestions was to reallocate $1.4 million in technology upgrades from the school system’s operations to a capital line that apparently had enough of a cushion to obviate any impact on the county’s tax rate.

 

County commissioner Craig Turner, who sponsored the final budget package and the 3.66-cent higher tax rate that passed on a 3-2 vote Monday night.

“It’s a decision that’s not going to make anyone happy. There are some folks out there who wanted the school system to get everything, and there are some folks who don’t want a tax increase. . . So, If you disagree with me, I understand that; if you want to punish me, I understand that, but I made the decision that I think is best for the county.”

– County commissioner Craig Turner

He also proposed adding another $4.5 million to the county manager’s original recommendation for the school system’s operations, including some $2.5 million to cover an anticipated increase in the school system’s utility costs.

At the same time, Turner seized on a projected increase in the school system’s proceeds from fines and forfeitures exacted by the local courts system, and he penciled in an extra $200,000 in funds from the county’s savings, while increasing York’s proposed tax increase from 2 to 3.66 cents.

Turner conceded that this proposed accommodation would be unlikely to satisfy either the local school system supporters or the county’s reluctant property taxpayers.

“It’s a decision that’s not going to make anyone happy,” he said after the budget’s approval. “There are some folks out there who wanted the school system to get everything, and there are some folks who don’t want a tax increase…So, if you disagree with me, I understand that; if you want to punish me, I understand that; but I made the decision that I think is best for the county.”

 

The aftermath

Turner’s successful motion followed a failed bid by Paisley to pass the county manager’s budget without any revisions. This gambit, which drew the support of commissioner Bill Lashley, would’ve nevertheless added 2 cents to the county’s property tax rate, while its flat allocation to the school system tanked with Turner, Thompson, and Carter.

Yet, the budget that ultimately won over the majority proved just as much a nonstarter with Paisley and Lashley.

County commissioner Bill Lashley at last week’s work session on the budget.

“[It’s] too rich for my blood. When you raise taxes almost three times the rate of inflation, you’ve lost me. A 9.2 percent increase in taxes? I just wonder how the residents of Alamance County are going to feel about it.”

– County commissioner Bill Lashley

“[It’s] too rich for my blood,” Lashley declared after Turner’s motion passed by a margin of 3-to-2. “When you raise taxes almost three times the rate of inflation, you’ve lost me. A 9.2 percent increase in taxes?! I just wonder how the residents of Alamance County are going to feel about it.”

Aside from any blowback that may come from the local electorate, the county’s new budget has also left a number of lingering challenges for the board of commissioners.

Among the items jettisoned from the new budget are a collection of proposed raises and bonuses for some of the county’s most-turnover-ridden positions.

The clamor for these compensatory increases originated last Wednesday when the sheriff’s office requested some signing bonuses to replenish its ranks – particularly in the county’s detention center. On Friday, the county’s administrators returned with a plan to use money from lapsed salaries to offer hiring bonuses to the county’s jailers as well as some of the harder-to-fill posts in EMS and social services. Turner subsequently tried to push through a version of this proposal that replaced the hiring bonuses with $2,000 raises for paramedics at the behest of the county’s EMS director.

Although this proposal failed on a 2-to-3 vote, Turner nevertheless urged his fellow commissioners to revisit the issue in the new fiscal year.

In the meantime, ongoing concerns about the school system’s fiscal accountability have prompted several members of the county’s governing board to press for some form of “guardrails” on the school system’s expenditures. This issue has been especially high on the agenda for Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who took part in some recent staff-level discussions about the county’s wherewithal to restrain the school system’s expenditures.

The county’s administrators have gone on to conclude that, for lack of any legal authority over the school system’s budget, the county’s best option is to demand regular financial reports from the Alamance-Burlington school board. Meanwhile, Carter leaned on his colleagues to remain vigilant on this matter as they head into a new financial cycle.

“The problem that we’ve been dealing with on this board is the trainwreck that finances were over the past year at ABSS,” he told his fellow commissioners, “and this clearly puts the onus on ABSS to get their act together.”

Carter also encouraged his fellow commissioners to repair their fractured relationship with the school system’s leaders.

The goal of détente was, likewise, a priority for commissioner Pam Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board before she joined the board of commissioners.

“This entire county has got to work together,” she added. “I encourage all of us to take this moment and move forward.”


Read our editorial page views on the commissioners’ actions: https://alamancenews.com/tax-budget-votes-reveal-actual-fiscal-conservatives-vs-merely-rhetorical-ones/

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