Alamance County’s board of commissioners took no formal action on Monday after it held a state-mandated public hearing on a proposed budget that the county manager had unveiled in May.
Monday’s hearing ultimately saw a half dozen residents weigh in on the proposed spending plan that county manager Bryan Hagood has recommended for the 12-month financial cycle that starts on July 1. These comments included a pitch for a property tax cut from one former county commissioner candidate, a call for more human services funding from another would-be member of the county’s governing board, and some general words of encouragement from a long-time member of the county’s board of equalization and review.
The commissioners also heard a couple of pleas during Monday’s hearing to “fully fund” the spending request that they have received from the Alamance-Burlington school system. Meanwhile, Medora Burke-Scoll, a representative of the local teachers’ union, expressed her complete confidence that the commissioners will do right by the schools when they sign off on the budget later this month.
“This budget process has been a bright point for a lot of us,” Burke-Scoll asserted during Monday night’s hearing. “It feels really different than it has in years past. I didn’t have to marshal an army of red shirts and fill up an auditorium.
“I’ve been hearing from educators around the county that they’re filled with hope,” she added. “Many of our public schools feel that we’re entering a new era with this board of commissioners.”
As it happens, the school system’s unexpurgated request already appears among the roughly $185 million in outlays that Hagood’s budget proposes for the county’s general fund. The county manager was also able to accommodate about 97 percent of the requests that he received from the county’s own departments and agencies this year.
Included within Hagood’s spending plan are additional funds for capital projects, 10 proposed additions to Alamance County’s staff, the restoration of another 28 posts that had been frozen at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and allocations to cover the debt payments on $150 million in bonds that the county recently issued on behalf of the school system. The county manager has also suggested a 5-percent raise for every sheriff’s deputy and jailer who works for the county, a 2-percent increase for all other county staff members, and the opportunity for up to 2 percent more in “merit-based” raises for employees other than the sheriff’s sworn personnel.
Hagood has managed to pack all of these items into his budget thanks to a $17.1 million increase in revenues that the county anticipates in the new fiscal year. The county’s expanding portfolio includes the proceeds from an 8-cent property tax hike that the commissioners adopted two years ago to pay off $189.6 million in public education bonds that the county’s voters had approved in 2018. Yet, the county assigns most of the credit for its present cash-flush state to a combination of robust sales tax receipts, which have proven unexpectedly resilient throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and to millions of dollars in federal relief that have poured into the county’s coffers since the pandemic’s arrival.
As a result of these windfalls, the county manager’s budget has envisioned no change in the county’s current property tax rate of 67 cents for every $100 of property. Last month, however, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, informed The Alamance News that he and his colleagues were also bandying around the idea of a property tax decrease in light of the county’s recent liquidity.
The commissioners received some encouragement to proceed with this prospective tax cut on Monday from Henry Vines, a farmer from Snow Camp who has made several unsuccessful bids for the board of commissioners as a Democrat. A recent convert to the GOP, Vines urged the board’s current all-Republican lineup not to forsake the county’s taxpayers in their deliberations over the budget.
“It seems to me that we’re in pretty good shape in the county,” he reminded the commissioners during the public hearing. “It would seem to me that we oughta be able to save some of this money in the way of a property tax decrease instead of trying to spend this money.”
Vines went on to question some of the line items in the manager’s proposed budget that appear to be greater than the respective departmental requests.
The commissioners heard a different take on the manager’s budget from Kristen Powers, who has twice sought a seat on the county’s governing board as a Democrat. Powers called on the board’s current lineup to invest more funds into human services and public transportation. She added that the needs in these areas have become clear to her through her work with Benevolence Farm, a nonprofit center in Snow Camp that strives to reintegrate people who’ve passed through the criminal justice system.
Powers went on relate the story of one woman at Benevolence Farm who she said had to hike five miles to a court date in Graham for lack of reliable transportation. In response to this anecdote, a couple of commissioners directed Powers to the Alamance County Transportation Authority, which provides shuttle service in rural parts of the county with funds that derive, in part, from the county government’s coffers.
The commissioners, for their part, chose to defer their final decision on the county manager’s budget until their next regularly-scheduled meeting on June 21. Several of them nevertheless offered hints about how their votes will ultimately fall once they had heard from the general public on Monday.
Most of the commissioners were especially keen to assure their constituents that they’ll support the school system’s proposed allocation in its entirety.
“I think it makes sense to be able to say that the county commissioners have fully funded ABSS’s request,” commissioner Craig Turner said as he gave voice to the board’s prevailing mood after the hearing. “I’d like to be able to go home and tell my kids that; I’d like to tell their teachers that; and I’d like to tell their principals that… It just feels good to say that we’ve given you what your educators have asked for.”
Turner’s words of support for the school system were echoed by Paisley as well as the board’s vice chairman Steve Carter. Meanwhile, commissioner Pam Thompson, who had previously served on the Alamance-Burlington school board, rhapsodized on the various needs that the local school system currently faces as live, in-person classes resume in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the commissioners also shared their predilections in areas other than public education. Paisley, for one, acknowledged that he had asked the county manager to beef up his proposed allocation for recreation and parks after he bemoaned the lack of publicity for some of the county’s latest historical commemorations. Meanwhile, Carter added that, in deference to his own entreaties, the manager’s proposed budget tries to anticipate the county’s needs for up to three years in the future. The board’s vice chairman went on insist that the county should muster its resources to address the growth that’s projected to occur over the next decade and a half. He also alluded to the prospect of “relief for the citizens who are paying the taxes” thanks to the county’s currently brisk revenues.
In the end, the most succinct response to Monday night’s hearing came from commissioner Bill Lashley.
“I’m just a little disappointed, to be honest with you, that we didn’t have more folks tonight,” he said. “But I promise that we’re going to…make this budget look like what the citizens of Alamance want it to look like.”