Commissioners increase spending but not tax rate

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 04:08 PM

Distancing themselves further from a property tax increase, the Union County Board of Commissioners tentatively approved $19.5 million in capital funding and $87 million in operating funding to Union County Public Schools.

UCPS’s request was for $89 million for operations and $97 million for capital.

The board took a step back from a proposed 8.2 cent tax increase during the Monday regular meeting. Thursday morning’s special meeting was dedicated exclusively to ironing out details of school funding in advance of the June 30 budget adoption deadline.

Attending the meeting were UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck and Richard Schwartz, the attorney who represented UCPS during last year’s funding court battle.

Commissioners expressed continued frustration with school officials because county staff has not received a prioritized list of all UCPS capital projects. County Manager Cindy Coto recommended appropriation only after receiving such a list. Finance Director Jeff Yates said UCPS officials stated that $71 million worth of capital projects were presented and ranked by priority during last year’s funding trial. This week, the county received a prioritized list of new capital needs, but commissioners wanted a comprehensive list spanning all projects. No roofing projects appeared on that list, Yates said.

Over the past year, parents repeatedly asked commissioners to fix safety and structural problems with school buildings. To ensure those projects were addressed, county staff created a prioritized school capital projects based on school safety, roofing, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, other facilities needs, buses, kitchen and cafeteria projects. Needs like improvement to athletic fields, technology and new or expanded facilities ranked lower on the county’s list.

“What we want to be sure is that the money provided from the county this year goes to the priority projects, regardless of what list they’re on,” Yates said.

Coto’s recommended budget built in a tax increase at the commissioners’ direction last month. The tax increase would provide $19.5 million annually for UCPS capital needs. It also appropriated money for a teacher pay increase.

Monday, Chairman Frank Aikmus read from a letter by Yercheck which indicated UCPS would take the $19.5 million in capital if the county agreed to several contingencies. School officials asked for a more broad way of budgeting operations funds, but the county wanted local money to be budgeted to the function level and any transfer between funds over 10 percent be approved by the county. School officials said that does not give them enough funding flexibility.  Yates noted that school officials have not requested the county approve such transfers under similar rules in the current budget.

UCPS officials also mentioned using bonds to fund capital needs, but Yates said most projects are not eligible for issuing debt. Nor is reducing the county’s reserve funds because it would adversely affect the county’s bond rating.

The only other way to fund capital funds would be for county officials to gut current county facility plans, like a new gun range for training sheriff’s deputies. Commissioners rejected the idea.

“My understanding is that this is a budget discussion for the schools, not a discussion about a jury award,” Commissioner Richard Helms said, of the UCPS capital request that includes the $91 million jury verdict. “I thought we were talking about the needs of our children in this county and the schools. We need to focus on that.”

Helms also stated that Yercheck told him the school board could vote to take a possible funding dispute to mediation.

Commissioner Todd Johnson said he had no problem with the level of funding county officials tentatively outlined, but he did have an issue with UCPS priorities.

“I’m not interested in increasing the core capacity to accommodate redistricting,” Johnson said. “I’m not interested in continued litigation cost. What I am interested in is funding safety and security, ADA compliance, making sure our kids go to school in a safe environment.

“If there’s a need for that, quite frankly if it’s safety and security and there’s a need, I don’t care what the dollar amount is, we’re going to fund it,” Johnson said.

Aikmus agreed, and added that he would do the same, but only “knowing what we’re providing it for are the true needs that need to be addressed.”

Vice Chairman Jerry Simpson said higher taxes is hard on residents who do not have children in the schools and that the county should find a way to spare people who do not reap direct benefit from schools.

Commissioners agreed to $19.5 million in specific capital projects and $87 million for operations. The board reiterated the need for a prioritized list of capital needs from UCPS.