County holds line on school budget, tax rate

May. 23, 2013 @ 05:13 PM

The Union County Board of Commissioners kept school funding at levels proposed in the draft budget and added requirements that the money be spent on certain projects.

The budget is slightly less than $297 million for fiscal year 2013-2014, an increase of about $5 million from the current level. To balance the budget, county officials had to cut $4 million from requested expenditures.

Finance Director Jeff Yates recapped the budget for the board, pointing out the history of decrease of the county’s adjusted gross revenue from $273 million in 2009 to $291 million in 2013.  Despite some recent economic recovery, the county’s projected growth is only $4.9 million from the current budget year.

That extra revenue will go toward higher costs, which have edged up over the years. Of that $4.9 million, $3 million was dedicated to funding Union County Public Schools’ capital requests, $1.47 million went toward an increase in overall school funding, $746,828 for school resource officers and other expenses. This budget sets up a merit pay increase pool, adds a little more than 30 full-time employees, recovers $3.7 million annual in debt-payment savings, addresses a 9.5 percent increase in employee benefit costs and increases community partner funding by .87 percent. It does not include an increase in the property tax rate.

UCPS requested $86.1 million in local funding which included costs for SROs, an cost the county agreed to take on. The county’s school funding formula of 35.36 cents on the 66 cent tax rate resulted in a proposed amount of $82.2 million. That is higher than the current budget amount of $80.7 million.

Add to that, the county budgeted $46.2 million on debt payments for UCPS capital projects. Together, operations and debt take up $131.5 million of the county’s revenue, or more than 57 cents on the 66 cent tax rate.

“The reason why I favored the funding formula was to avoid what we’re having to go through now,” Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said.

The formula would allow UCPS officials a predictable, sustainable funding amount they could use to reliably budget each year, he said. Thomas said he spoke with three UCPS board members on March 18, the night commissioners voted on it. He offered to table the vote if school officials had concerns.

“And the comment I was told that evening was ‘I just don’t like it. I can’t tell you why,’” Thomas said.

Based on the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website, Thomas said he learned Union County provides 110 percent of the state’s average county contribution to school funding.

“And we’ve heard here today that we’re running the entire county on just over 8 cents (on the tax rate),” Thomas said. “Sheriff’s office, administration all on a little over 8 cents on our 66 cent rate.”

To fund the school system at its requested rate would mean raising the property tax rate by 1.16 cents. The school board’s request grew by double the national inflation rate, while the county’s costs have stayed level. He praised county employees for budgeting carefully by evaluating every line item.

After considering the $8.3 million UCPS capital request, Thomas said he applied the commission’s priorities of public safety to the project priority.  

“I’ve not heard from (UCPS) what their priority’s are, so based on their presentation to us, I came away with basically three areas,” Thomas said. “One, security. Two, the safety and that specifically applies to the Piedmont High School football stadium. And three, if we don’t do anything, they’re going to cut the classrooms.”

He moved to reallocate the $3 million in capital funds and $82.2 million in operations funds to certain projects. About $1.7 million is to be used for safety improvements to Piedmont High School’s bleachers, restrooms, press box and parking lot. With $1.02 million, UCPS would use for student safety and security projects like fencing, security doors and host interface devices. And about $230,800 for facilities, technology and ADA compliance.

Further, the $82.2 million would be used only for certain purposes. The county would fully fund the school’s instructional funding $45.5 million request, the $3.5 million for charter schools request and a $33.1 million as partial funding for support services.

Thomas added a maximum annual transfer of 10 percent of funds between purposes by UCPS without the commission’s approval.

The motion was approved by unanimous vote.

For a copy of the county’s proposed FY 2013-2014 budget, visit www.co.union.nc.us/Portals/0/Finance/CAFR/FY2014%20Recommended%20Budget.pdf.