Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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Commissioners postpone vote on county’s next annual budget

Alamance County’s governing board has decided to delay its decision on a new county budget as recent concerns over school safety have compelled some of its members to second guess a potential property tax cut that they had hoped to see in the new fiscal year.

The county’s board of commissioners resolved to put off their vote on the budget until June 20 after public hearing on Monday forced them to confront these, and other, lingering issues with the proposed spending plan.

The five-member board reached this consensus after a 45-minute discussion that followed the hearing, which drew feedback from a half dozen area residents.

During their subsequent deliberations, the commissioners mulled over everything from the potential for an economic downturn on the horizon to the widespread demand for more school resource officers since last week’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The commissioners also confirmed their personal commitments to certain department-level spending requests and they considered the financial impact of various pay raises that the county’s interim manager has proposed in response to ongoing staffing shortages in many county departments.

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In the final analysis, the commissioners agreed that these assorted priorities have complicated their long-standing desire to cut property taxes in the county’s next budget. This consensus among the all-Republican board was perhaps best articulated by Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners who, with three and a half years on the dais, is also the board’s longest serving member.

“[T]here’s nobody on this board that wants to give back a tax cut more than I do…But there’s nobody here with a crystal ball. We all rely on input from outside to make the best decisions for our citizens…and this is probably going to be from my perspective the hardest budget I’ve had to look at.” – County commissioner vice chairman Steve Carter

“I spent most of my life fighting taxes. I led the Tea Party here for 13 years,” Carter said alluding to the anti-tax movement within the Republican Party. “[T]here’s nobody on this board that wants to give back a tax cut more than I do…But there’s nobody here with a crystal ball. We all rely on input from outside to make the best decisions for our citizens…and this is probably going to be from my perspective the hardest budget I’ve had to look at.”

 

The public speaks

Before Carter and his colleagues laid out the challenges they currently face, they heard a smattering of public opinion about the proposed budget that the county’s interim manager Sherry Hook formally unveiled on May 17.

In keeping with a new policy that the commissioners adopted earlier that evening, each of the hearing’s six speakers was allotted three minutes to address the county’s governing board. This reduction from the traditional five minutes offered to public hearing participants was nevertheless deemed more consistent with the three-minute quotas that the board has allocated to speakers during the designated public comment periods that have bookended its meetings. (The board has also decided to do away with the second of these two commend periods, which had been reserved for topics unrelated to agenda items. The new policy allows all public speakers to share their thoughts during the period that kicks off each meeting.)

The new three-minute limit didn’t seem to discourage Medora Burke-Skoll, a member of the local association of educators who has also been named as the latest teacher of the year for the Alamance-Burlington school system. During Monday’s hearing, Burke-Scoll urged the commissioners not to sacrifice the spending priorities of the school system, the local community college, or the office of Alamance County’s sheriff in their zeal to cut property taxes from their current rate of 66 cents for every $100 of value.

“I ask you to please keep our tax rate the same,” she implored the county’s governing board. “I’m a homeowner in this county, and I don’t like paying property taxes. Nobody likes paying property taxes. But the mean annual savings across Alamance County would be $30 a year…and Alamance County is growing. Every year, this county welcomes more people; it welcomes more students to our school system and becomes a nicer place to live…We can’t have that growth without funding.”

The call to maintain a status quo tax rate was echoed by Robert Alvis, who asked the commissioners preserve the budget requests that the county manager’s office has received from ABSS, Alamance Community College, and its own departments and agencies.

Meanwhile, Algie Gatewood, the president of Alamance Community College, asked the commissioners to fully fund his institution’s budget request, which the interim county manager had whittled down by some $173,484.

“Alamance Community College has a budget request before you that is a very realistic request,” Gatewood assured the commissioners. “We need that funding level to keep us sustained as an institution.”

The commissioners heard a similar plea from Sandy Ellington Graves, the chairman of the Alamance-Burlington school board, whose own request to the county was lightened by about $1.3 million in the interim manager’s budget. Ellington-Graves told the commissioners that, at the very least, they should provide enough funds for the schools to hire more resource officers and increase the salary supplement they currently provide to their teachers.

“Personally, I support having an SRO on every ABSS campus…But, as a [school] board member, if I shift my support to fund SROs, I struggle with less than $200,000 available to support our educators [by raising the supplement]…And as a board member, I believe school safety and teacher supplements are both top priorities.” – School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

“Personally, I support having an SRO on every ABSS campus,” added the school board’s representative, whose three-minute allocation was uniquely extended to allow her to get through her prepared remarks to the commissioners. “But, as a [school] board member, if I shift my support to fund SROs, I struggle with less than $200,000 available to support our educators [by raising the supplement]…And as a board member, I believe school safety and teacher supplements are both top priorities.”

The commissioners also heard a request to set revenue aside for a public defender’s office from Haw River resident Brett Rapkin-Citrenbaum.

Meanwhile, a suggestion that ran counter to the rest of the hearing’s remarks came from Henry Vines – a Snow Camp resident who has waged unsuccessful bids for the board of commissioners, both as a Democrat and, more recently, as a Republican. During his three-minute at the podium, Vines urged the board’s current members to set aside their sundry concerns in order to extend a favor to the county’s property owners.

“Tonight, I stand before you to ask for a tax reduction,” he said. “It seems like we save money, we make money, and our financial stability in this county is very good. But we’re being overtaxed.”

 

Response from the dais

Not long ago, Vines’ remarks would’ve probably received an unqualified “amen” from commissioner Bill Lashley, who has emerged as the most strident advocate for a tax cut among the board’s current members. As recently as two weeks ago, Lashley was lobbying his fellow commissioners to trim at least 2 cents from the property tax rate, rather than the 1 cent that some of them had previously said they would back.

“I believe that between the school board and this board, we should be able to take care of this problem [improved school security, with more SROs]. I hope the taxpayers understand that your taxes aren’t going to go up, but we are going to have to spend some money we weren’t expecting to take care of this problem…and I believe that we can do it in such a way that we are not going to have to raise taxes.” – County commissioner Bill Lashley

Monday nevertheless brought a markedly different tone from Lashley, who noted his heightened concerns about school safety in light of the massacre in Uvalde.

“I believe that between the school board and this board, we should be able to take care of this problem,” he said after the public hearing. “I hope the taxpayers understand that your taxes aren’t going to go up, but we are going to have to spend some money we weren’t expecting to take care of this problem…and I believe that we can do it in such a way that we are not going to have to raise taxes.”

Lashley’s concerns about school safety were reiterated by several other commissioners. One of the more passionate appeals on the issue came from Pam Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board prior to her elevation to the board of commissioners. Thompson recalled that, during her time on the school board, the school system already had a long-term goal to provide at least one full-time resource officer in each of its schools.

“We have got to get it together,” she went on to exhort her fellow commissioners, “and have the safety we need in our schools – every school…So, I want us to think about getting SROs across the board.”

At the moment, the Alamance-Burlington school system boasts full-time resource officers in all of the schools that are located within the primary jurisdiction of Alamance County’s sheriff. The school system nevertheless makes do with part-time officers at 14 schools within the municipal limits of various municipalities. In its latest proposed spending plan, the Alamance-Burlington school board has set revenue aside for full-time officers in just four of those 14 schools.

In addition to her demand for more school resource officers, Thompson also pressed her colleagues to hire additional forensic analysts at the local sheriff’s office and provide more funds for the county’s recreation and parks department. But it was her clarion call regarding cops in schools that ultimately seemed to have the most traction with the rest of the board.

Commissioner Craig Turner, the board’s junior-most member, threw his own support behind the imperative to field a school resource officer in every school in the county.

“We need to get 14 SROs in the schools that don’t have SROs,” he told his fellow commissioners, “and not only an SRO just to fill a spot but an SRO that’s part of a team…SROs provide safety, yes; but they also provide an opportunity particularly for kids to develop a positive relationship with law enforcement.”

Turner, who along with Carter is up for reelection this year, went on to encourage the school system’s representatives to amend their budget request in order to ramp up the police presence at area schools.

“I would encourage the school board to look at that and to ask us what you need,” he added. “Don’t worry about offending. ask us what you need, and then it’s on us.”

Turner’s insistence on a resource officer in every school was seconded by Carter, who also expressed his support for ACC’s budget request, the interim county manager’s proposed pay raises, and other items in her recommended spending plan.

“There’s no department that we can survive without in this county,” he declared, addressing Vines and other tax cut proponents. “All of you might think you’d like to see a cut someplace. But, please, tell me where we ought to cut it.”

In a subsequent interview, Carter assured The Alamance News that he’d still like to see a 1-cent property tax cut in the county’s new budget. Turner also confirmed his continued support for a 1-cent reduction after Monday night’s meeting. But the only commissioner who publicly espoused this 1-cent decrease from the dais that evening was John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

“As to the tax cut, I plan at this point to support a one penny decrease…I would really like to give the taxpayers some help…But at the same time I don’t want us to give so much help that we pay for it in our next year’s budget.” – County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“As to the tax cut, I plan at this point to support a one penny decrease,” Paisley told the rest of the board. “I would really like to give the taxpayers some help… But at the same time I don’t want us to give so much help that we pay for it in our next year’s budget.”

Paisley went on to share his angst over the possibility of an economic recession – which he deemed likely enough given the constriction that the nation’s economy has already posted during the first quarter of 2022 (Economists define a recession as two consecutive quarters of contraction).

 

Decide another day

Paisley told his fellow commissioners that, in order to increase the number of resource officers in area schools, the commissioners ought to sit down with the school board to hammer out a comprehensive plan to fund the additional positions. He also suggested a similar meeting with the leaders of local municipalities to persuade them to increase their financial state in these officers. At the moment, only Burlington and Mebane make any financial contribution to resource officers within their city limits.

For these reasons and other, Paisley encouraged his colleagues to postpone their vote on the budget until their next regularly-scheduled meeting on June 20. His recommendation received a unanimous nod from the rest of the board.

The commissioners also agreed at Paisley’s behest to put off another vote on a package of proposed changes to the county’s unified development ordinance.

These changes, which include new regulations for RV and mobile home parks, had originally come up for a public hearing in May. The commissioners nevertheless chose not to take any action immediately after the hearing in order to give would-be RV park developers a change to haggle over some of the provisions with county staff members. Paisley told his colleagues that he many tweaks of his own to add to the resulting draft, which he convinced the rest of the board to take back up again on June 20.

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