County budget won't hike taxes, school spending

Sparty Hammett Pasquotank Manager

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Neither property taxes nor school spending would increase in next year's proposed Pasquotank budget that county officials presented on Monday.

County commissioners largely accepted County Manager Sparty Hammett's recommendations for the 2019-20 general fund budget, which he presented in a meeting in the Pasquotank County Library.

Commissioners took no formal action on the proposal. The county must first hold a public hearing on the budget before commissioners consider adopting it. The county must have a new budget in place for 2019-20 prior to July 1.

At Monday’s meeting, Hammett noted commissioners directed county staff to present a budget without a tax increase, and they did so. The property tax rate next year would remain at 77 cents per $100 of valuation.

Accomplishing that required whittling some $52 million in department and agency requests down to just under $49 million. According to a county spreadsheet, that’s still almost $800,000 more than the $48.2 million commissioners approved in general fund spending this budget year.

Pasquotank's largest single funding request came from Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, which asked for $15.1 million, which includes about $12.5 million for operations and $2.6 million for school repairs and maintenance.

Hammett said the county can cover the $2.6 million in capital requests, thanks to available revenues, including $1.2 million from a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax; about $1 million in borrowing; and $500,000 in savings on school projects in this year's budget.

However, he told commissioners, the county can only provide about $11.4 million toward school operations in 2019-20, which is the same amount the school system got this year. He said the only fiscally responsible way the county could cover the additional $1.1 million in the request would be to raise the property tax rate by 4 cents. Each cent of the property tax rate raises about $311,000, the county estimates.

No ECPPS officials were present at Monday's meeting. Two school board members reached for comment Tuesday defended the district’s request for extra funding.

Board member Denauvo Robinson said the extra funding was “extremely important” and he hoped ECPPS could work with the county on the request.

Board member Walter “Buck” Jolly similarly said not getting the extra funding would affect the school district, though he wasn't immediately sure how much ECPPS had or planned to use in reserves to cover its budget.

Robinson and Jolly also said that ECPPS needs more funding to maintain current services, citing mandatory, growing expenses.

In a presentation to commissioners earlier this month, school officials reported that state-required salary and benefit increases would cost ECPPS $170,000, and that projected payments next year to the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies would rise by $255,000. ECPPS acts as a pass-through for state funding to support students from Pasquotank who attend the charter school, which is seeing growing enrollment.

Some of ECPPS' increased request is optional, however. It sought $209,000 to provide $400 raises to teachers and instructional staff, plus $205,000 to return teacher assistants to working full-time hours.

Jolly defended that increased spending, saying it would directly benefit students and the community, and would help pay teachers and staff “what they're worth.”

While not recommending extra operational funds for ECPPS, Hammett also told commissioners he cut numerous county priorities out of the budget as well. He explained the county projects revenues to grow by about $976,000 next year, but “mandatory or unavoidable” spending increases would eat up almost all of that, at about $903,000.

Some of those expenses include: $160,000 toward a state-mandated increase in payments to employees' retirements; $125,050 for tower upgrades for the area's 911 service, Pasquotank-Camden Central Communications; and $104,000 toward a new, larger senior center.

He also included $106,000 for a $500-per-employee raise in the budget. While raises are optional, Hammett has strongly recommended them to keep employees' pay competitive with that in surrounding counties, so as to attract and keep good employees.

He also told commissioners the county needs to work toward granting true “cost-of-living adjustments,” or percentage-based raises, that would mean more to higher-paid employees. He noted he didn't include a 3-percent raise for employees that would have cost $200,000.

Other major projects not funded include $150,000 to replace heating-and-cooling units for the courthouse; $75,000 to update a land use plan; $37,000 to hire another maintenance staffer; and establishing a tracking system for citizens’ service requests. How much that system would cost has yet to be determined, he said, but explained such systems streamline requests to help the public and businesses.

Regarding funding for ECPPS, Hammett also told commissioners the county's investment in school capital is greater than the revenue sources dedicated to it. He's proposed spending $6 million to cover school capital projects, including new projects and almost $3.4 million for debt payments on old projects, versus $5.4 million in revenue and borrowing specifically for school projects, he reported.

To improve school spending, Hammett also reported, he included $50,000 for a “financial operations review” similar to one completed for other counties, including Currituck, on their schools to find savings and new revenues.

Even after cutting department and agency requests, Hammett's budget calls for using up to $700,000 in fund balance, up from the $600,000 authorized for this year.

In one budget change, commissioners recommended almost fully funding next year's request for College of The Albemarle. Hammett had proposed $1.74 million toward COA's operations — approving only an extra $75,000 for security but cutting about $40,000 for maintenance and other increases — and $500,000 for capital projects. COA had sought another $200,000 for smaller, proactive maintenance projects.

Were the county to spend more than $500,000 on maintenance, Hammett suggested financing $250,000 for the replacement of a chiller in COA's Foreman/C Building. Commissioners agreed, reasoning a chiller would have to be paid for sooner or later.

Other significant purchases proposed in next year's budget include $284,700 for replacing sheriff's office patrol vehicles and buying 19 “toughbook” laptops, and $233,483 for a new ambulance and two response vehicles for Emergency Medical Services.