Budget optimism expressed

Mar. 27, 2014 @ 06:27 PM

Wednesday’s joint meeting of the Union County Board of Commissioners and the Union County Board of Education had an unexpected ending.

“You know, I came here tonight with a sense of dread,” school board member Rick Pigg said in his closing comments. “But the presentation and conversation tonight leaves me optimistic about things.”

While there was some tension during the first joint meeting between the elected bodies since a jury verdict awarded Union County Public Schools $91 million after it sued the county over capital funding, both boards seemed amenable to the requests of the other.

Union County Finance Officer Jeff Yates presented a proposed procedure for the boards to talk about and develop annual budgets. Because school systems get funding from federal, state and local sources, UCPS budgeting timelines do not often fit well with the county’s budgeting. Because state law makes the county responsible for the maintenance of all school buildings, commissioners need funding information as early as possible to complete the county budget by deadline. That cooperation is especially needed because school funding is the county’s largest annual expenditure.

The procedure’s goals included communication with each other and the public, fiscal sustainability, adherence to state law and transparency.  More conversation between the boards about UCPS funding requests are essential for commissioners to understand school needs, Yates said.

“During last year’s budget process, it wasn’t given adequate attention,” Yates said. “I believe it was about an hour and a half  joint meeting or work session where it was discussed and that was about the extent of the public conversation.”

The procedure establishes a timeline where both boards develop their budgets but meet regularly to keep each other informed about the process. When both budgets are complete, the plan called for a presentation of the county’s budget with just county expense included and a presentation of UCPS budget requests and the impact on the county tax rate.

UCPS Chairman Richard Yercheck gave a presentation about the school’s budget timeline. Departments have submitted requests and UCPS staff have asked directors to justify expendatures. And while the staff has done preliminary budget work, budgeting is on hold for the time being. Usually, N.C. Department of Public Instruction gives school districts final operations funding amounts by April. But this year, neither the governor or the N.C. General Assembly has presented a budget. Until they do, the state’s total school funding total is unknown and NCDPI cannot give school districts budget amounts.

“Right now, until we get information from Raleigh and from Washington, we’re in a holding pattern,” he said.

Assuming the state budget arrives soon, Yercheck said the finance committee will present a final budget to the school board in early April and then present it to the commissioners by May 15, which fits into the county’s proposed procedure.

In response to the county’s proposed cooperative budget process, Yercheck said the school board came up with some proposed changes.

“I want to preface by saying that none of this is intended as we go through it to be inflammatory,” he said. “I hope this is viewed as a process that’s bringing is together and moving us forward.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Commission Chairman Frank Aikmus said.

School Board member John Collins interjected that he appreciated the county’s presentation of the plan as suggestion and not a requirement.

UCPS board members suggested adding “fostering an environment of trust” as a plan goal.

“As we go through our principles, that’s one of the key reasons we’re here this evening,” Yercheck said. “It’s something that I know all of of you want, all of us want and all the folks here want too.”

They also suggested including a goal of “fostering an environment of fairness.”

“One where the school board isn’t demonized as the source of the county’s financial problems,” he said.

He suggested other goals, like ensuring UCPS gets the funding needed to provide education to the county’s students. He mentioned fostering an environment of honestly about the county’s finances, removing language in the plan that singles out the UCPS funding burden and instead explains to the public how much of the tax revenue goes to each county service. The school board also suggested removing language about the commission’s power to restrict local funding to certain uses because it removes the only flexible funding source available for unexpected needs.

Commissioner Todd Johnson argued that restricting money transfers between funds ensures local money is spent on the needs presented to the county by the school board members.

“If your budget says you need money for a, b and c, we want to make sure a, b and c gets done,” Johnson said.

In the suggested environment of trust, Johnson said the school board should trust the commissioners to honor funding requests to respond to unexpected needs.

Johnson and Commissioner Richard Helms supported the proposal’s language about the county’s ability to request school funding information. Helms said six months had passed since he made an information request. Yercheck said last year, the county requested a large amount of financial data and gave UCPS officials a few days to fulfill the request.

“We were going through accreditation last spring and you either get the accreditation or you don’t and you have to wait five years to try again,” Yercheck said. “We were so busy we didn’t have anyone on staff who could just stop working on accreditation and fill that request.”

“That’s why we need an ongoing trade of information instead of a flood of it a few weeks before the budget vote,” Johnson said.

After a little more discussion about the proposed procedure and another joint meeting in April, officials on both sides commented that the meeting had been positive.

“This has been long overdue,” Commission Vice Chairman Jerry Simpson.