Commissioners hear pleas for schools, sheriff during Mon. public hearing

Nearly two dozen residents approached Alamance County’s board of commissioners this week to share their concerns and suggestions for a proposed spending plan that could increase the tax burden on area property owners for the first time since 2019.

Yet, the fear of higher taxes afflicted just three of the 23 people who took part in a public hearing on Monday that the commissioners held to solicit input about the county’s next budget. In fact, the vast majority of the residents who piled into the county’s historic courthouse for this state-mandated hearing were more concerned that the county adequately funds its departments and agencies – particularly the Alamance-Burlington school system and the office of Alamance County’s sheriff.

Among those who downplayed the threat of a tax hike was Joe Wall, a cattle farmer from Snow Camp, who even took a swipe at the editorial page of The Alamance News as a “broken record” of gripes on this subject.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” Wall told the commissioners. “I’m not particularly proud to live in a county that has the lowest tax rate – just about – in the state. I’m tired of being a cheap county. I’d like you to put up the money to get this county to operate right.”

 

Wanted: More funds for sheriff’s staff
Wall didn’t zero in on any particular department or agency as he admonished the commissioners to provide adequate funds for the county’s operations. But the county’s governing board did hear some rather specific concerns from others who argued for sufficient funding over low taxes.

Sheriff Terry Johnson told the commissioners he’d be willing to stomach a tax hike in order to plug some of the numerous vacancies in his patrol and detention divisions.

Johnson noted that, since 2022, his office has seen 15 involuntary terminations because “we had to lower our standards to fill the positions that we had vacant.” He also lamented the large number of voluntary departures that his agency has seen as deputies and jailers have left his employ for higher salaries, more generous benefits, or smaller workloads in other jurisdictions. Johnson fretted over the ramifications of the resulting manpower shortage – and especially the violent encounters with inmates that he attributed to short staffing in his detention division.

“We have the lowest tax rate in the surrounding counties, and I’m not one who wants taxes raised. I pay taxes like anybody else,” the sheriff went on to concede. “But I do not want the blood of my people on my shirt because I did not stand before the commissioners and make them aware of the problems in that detention center and the Alamance County sheriff’s office.

“You’ve got a decision that you have to make in this budget or I’m going to have to cancel the [jail’s U.S.] Marshals’ contract, I’m going to have to cancel the ICE contract and bring people out of the courtrooms [to fill vacant positions in the detention center].”

Johnson’s angst over vacancies was reiterated by his captains Chris Crain and Scott Gaither.

Sheriff’s office captain Chris Crain

“The county is always playing catch up, and I understand it costs money [to improve retention]. But it costs more money to keep hiring people…And at the end of the day, we need the money. I’m not telling you how to make it happen. But it needs to happen.”

– Chris Crain, Alamance County sheriff’s office captain

Crain told the commissioners that short staffing makes it harder for him to deal with pressing issues like the county’s growing number of fatal drug overdoses. Meanwhile, Gaither bemoaned the figurative treadmill that the sheriff’s office is on in its efforts to recruit and retain qualified officers.

Sheriff’s office captain Scott Gaither

“The county is always playing catch up, and I understand it costs money [to improve retention]. But it costs more money to keep hiring people…And at the end of the day, we need the money. I’m not telling you how to make it happen. But it needs to happen.”

– Alamance County sheriff’s office captain Scott Gaither

“The county is always playing catch up,” he added, “and I understand it costs money [to improve retention]. But it costs more money to keep hiring people…And at the end of the day, we need the money. I’m not telling you how to make it happen. But it needs to happen.”

These entreaties from the sheriff and his top brass were also echoed by a couple of civilians who approached the commissioners on Monday.

Doug Adams

Doug Adams, for one, complained that “response times are way down” because sheriff’s deputies “are starving for money.” Meanwhile, Adam Covington raised the alarm about what might occur if the commissioners don’t heed the sheriff’s request for more funds.

Adam Covington

“I think we need to do whatever we can to get the sheriff the money to fill these empty spots, because if you call 9-1-1 and don’t nobody show up, you’ve got a problem.” – Adam Covington

“I think we need to do whatever we can to get the sheriff the money to fill these empty spots,” Covington implored the county’s governing board, “because if you call 9-1-1 and don’t nobody show up, you’ve got a problem.”

 

A test for public education
The scramble for adequate funds was also front and center for many supporters of the Alamance-Burlington school system who addressed the commissioners.

The county’s governing board heard a request for higher taxes from Medora Burke-Scoll, a representative of the local teacher’s union who emphasized the needs that this additional revenue could fund across county government.

Medora Burke-Scoll

“I would love to see our tax rate increase slightly if it means we can do a better job of funding our community’s needs, whether that’s the school system or the sheriff’s department or any other community agency.”

– ABSS teacher Medora Burke-Scoll

“I would love to see our tax rate increase slightly if it means we can do a better job of funding our community’s needs,” she said, “whether that’s the school system or the sheriff’s department or any other community agency.”

Burke-Scoll nevertheless commended the commissioners for the financial support that they’ve previously given the schools to compensate for decreases in state allocations. But her charitable tone didn’t extend to most of the school system’s other supporters, who were downright furious with the county’s leaders for their apparently disproportionate focus on property taxes at the expense of public education.

Many of these more bellicose public education boosters were clad in matching t-shirts for Down Home North Carolina, a left-leaning advocacy group that has clashed with the county’s all-Republican board of commissioners over a variety of issues. In this case, the organization’s supporters rallied to the defense of a capital reserve fund that contains cash from various sources that was originally set aside for the school system’s brick and mortar facilities.

Earlier this year, county officials angered many of the school system’s backers when they proposed to dip into these reserves to help pay for a proposed expansion and overhaul of the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House in Graham. The county’s leaders have since taken this option off the table and deferred their consideration of the courthouse expansion until after they adopt the county’s next annual budget. Even so, a large chunk of the Down Home contingent continued to blast them over this plan to raid the schools on behalf of the courts.

One speaker even accused the commissioners of funding the “so-called schools-to-prisons pipeline” – a metaphor for the seemingly seamless transition that some young people make from the classroom to the cell block.

While the commissioners may not be currently hunting for way to bankroll the courthouse expansion, they have recently keyed in on the aforementioned capital reserve fund to supply some of the money they’ll need to reduce the property tax implications of the county’s next budget.

[Story continues below photos of various other speakers during Monday night public hearing.]


Speakers during public hearing on proposed 2023-2024 county budget

Angela Thompson
Jay Kennett
Janet Eckleberger
Joe Wall
Pamela Hale
Paul Capps
Shawn Francis
Tiffany Smith

At the moment, the commissioners need to come up with about $7.1 million in order to reduce the property tax rate that Alamance County’s manager Heidi York has proposed to a level that would effectively wipe out the windfall the county would otherwise get from its latest property tax revaluation in January.

York’s recommended rate of 45.43 cents for every $100 of property may seem, on paper, quite fetching next to the current levy of 65 cents. It nevertheless amounts to a roughly 6.7 percent increase over the 42.49 cents that the county’s tax office estimates would offset the revaluation’s bump to the local property tax base.

The commissioners have, for their part, publicly pledged to adopt this “revenue neutral rate” – although at least one has adjusted his expectations to a so-called “inflation neutral” alternative of 43.51 cents, which would leave a gap of only $4.8 million in the county manager’s spending plan.

In either case, the commissioners have once again turned to the school system’s capital reserves as they struggle to find ways to bring the tax rate down to either the revenue neutral or inflation neutral level. The board’s latest gambit has been to suggest drawing about $2.5 million, or a penny’s worth on the tax rate, from these reserves.

In defense of this plan, the commissioners have argued that the funds they’re looking at aren’t technically the school system’s at all – but rather the surplus from the county’s yearly allocation to cover the debt payments on a $150 million bond package that area voters approved for the schools in 2018. But this rationale didn’t seem to fly with many of the school system’s backers at Monday night’s hearing.

“The fact of the matter is that it will result in a loss of money for the school system and a lost opportunity for true crime prevention and a healthy, educated population,” said Amanda Baker, a member of the t-shirt-shod bloc with Down Home North Carolina. “If there happens to be a surplus in said fund, then it should also be earmarked for education to build upon the promises you made to those you represent.”

Sandra Cooke

“As the county board of commissioners, you must do your part to ensure that education reserve funds and debt service funds are used solely for our public schools.  My message is this: Hands off the reserve funds, hands off the debt services funds and hands off any funds that might threaten our children’s education.” – Sandra Cooke

“As the county board of commissioners, you must do your part to ensure that education reserve funds and debt service funds are used solely for our public schools,” agreed Sandra Cooke. “My message is this: Hands off the reserve funds, hands off the debt services funds and hands off any funds that might threaten our children’s education.”

Cooke’s admonition was reiterated by a number of other speakers who shared her affiliation with the same advocacy group.

Justine Post, the parent of an enthusiastic rising kindergartener, complained that the county’s apparent stinginess could undermine her own child’s educational prospects.

Justine Post

“I hear about the vulnerability of the county’s school budget, and I feel like the county school system is far from ready to support her…I was hearing about violence in jails and understaffing, and I can agree that’s an urgent issue…But I don’t think there needs to be an either/or and I just want to say hands off the school budget as a mom who’s about to send her kid into that school.”

Tanya Kline, a former ABSS social worker and current ABSS parent, also implored the commissioners to keep their ‘hands off” any funds she believed rightly belonged to the schools. She went on to urge the county’s leaders to fully fund the school system’s budget request, which the Alamance-Burlington school board had recently agreed to trim back as a concession to the county’s financial objectives.

Tanya Kline

“I know that never happens,” she added. “But I’m still going to ask because I think that’s what the school system deserves.”

 

The anti-tax banner
The board’s own position on taxes wasn’t entirely unrepresented during Monday night’s hearing.

Among those who spoke up in opposition to an increased levy on property was Ed Priola, a former Republican contender for the state house who is currently campaigning for a seat on the board of commissioners. Priola exhorted the board’s current lineup to hold the line at the revenue neutral level regardless of the entreaties they get from the county’s departments and agencies.

Ed Priola

“Now is not the time to raise taxes especially when it’s for foolish matters. . . This is the time that we have to consider how we spend money wisely – when inflation is mugging people every time they go to the grocery store, when hourly wage earners have to have multiple jobs to pay the rent, and of course when the nightmare of a crushing property tax revaluation threatens to force retirees from their homes.” – Ed Priola

“Now is not the time to raise taxes especially when it’s for foolish matters,” he said.

“Revenue neutral is where we need to be not, inflation neutral as I’ve heard of late…This is the time that we have to consider how we spend money wisely – when inflation is mugging people every time they go to the grocery store, when hourly wage earners have to have multiple jobs to pay the rent, and of course when the nightmare of a crushing property tax revaluation threatens to force retirees from their homes.”

The plight of the average taxpayer was also bewailed by Henry Vines, a one-time candidate for the board of commissioners who currently serves on the county’s board of equalization and review. As a member of the body which hears revaluation appeals, Vines told the commissioners that he has garnered a rare insight into the fears of the county’s beleaguered taxpayers.

Henry Vines

“We’ve had people stand before us and actually cry. It just breaks your heart. . . You have promised a revenue neutral [tax rate]. I’m just asking you to live up to the promises that you’ve made so that people won’t see this high increase in their property taxes.”

– Henry Vines, member of the county’s equalization and review board that hears revaluation appeals

“We’ve had people stand before us and actually cry. It just breaks your heart,” he added.

“You have promised a revenue neutral [tax rate]. I’m just asking you to live up to the promises that you’ve made so that people won’t see this high increase in their property taxes.”

Meanwhile, Maurine Rockell offered the commissioners a similar plea from someone with no apparent aspirations to political office.

Maurine Rockell

“We certainly can’t afford these higher taxes that are based on a housing bubble. We really need a revenue neutral budget so the rest of us can afford to stay here and pay your taxes.”– Maurine Rockell

“We certainly can’t afford these higher taxes that are based on a housing bubble,” she told the county’s governing board. “We really need a revenue neutral budget so the rest of us can afford to stay here and pay your taxes.”

In response to the full range of public opinion they heard, the commissioners merely assured Monday’s audience that they’d take every view point into consideration when they go through the county manager’s budget on Tuesday.

“I just want to let everyone know that we intend to do some more work on this budget,” insisted commissioner Bill Lashley, “and I look forward to showing the pubic what we come up with.”

County commissioners from foreground (right to left): Pam Thompson, Bill Lashley, board chairman John Paisley, Jr., Steve Carter, and Craig Turner.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and sharpen our pencils and get to work,” agreed commissioner Craig Turner. “It’s important for us to hear what our citizens think and respond in kind with the budget we come up with,” added Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. “I hope that people will respect we’re trying to do the right thing for our citizens and for the employees of this county.”