The ongoing Union County budget fight between the school board and county commissioners has so far cost taxpayers more than $1.3 million in legal bills, records show. And there’s no end in sight.
This summer, the school board sued the county to seek more money than the commissioners had allocated for the district in the annual budget. Commissioners had designated about $85 million of their $298 million budget for the school district.
After a two-month trial, a county jury awarded $91 million to the district in October, a verdict that the commissioners are appealing.
Legal fees and related expenses for the county – such as expert testimony, printing and travel – so far total $631,254. Similar bills for the school board come to $698,715.
“It’s time to move forward and stop the mounting legal fees,” said Amelie Schoel, an Indian Trail resident and parent who supports the school system. Topping $1 million is “a threshold that makes you say ‘wow.’ ”
Schoel said the commissioners should drop their appeal and find a way to settle the dispute.
School board Chairman Richard Yercheck said he thought taxpayers would look at the $1.3 million as a waste of money. But he added that the board is following the law in dealing with the budget dispute.
Commissioners Chairman Frank Aikmus, when told the combined total in legal bills, said, “Isn’t that ridiculous? I’ve said many times the real losers here are the taxpayers.
“We went to court over (a funding difference of about) $8 million and received a $91-million judgment. It’s not appropriate for us to allow that to stand,” he said.
Commissioners insist that the county would be forced to implement a massive tax increase or cut services to cover the verdict.
There’s still lots of logistical work involved in the appeal, including transcribing two months of court testimony. Aikmus said it might not be until next summer before an appeal is heard by the state Court of Appeals.
In mid-December, the school board rejected a settlement deal from commissioners, who had offered $11.2 million. In response, school board members insisted on the entire payment of the October ruling but said they would be willing to spread out the $91 million over a number of years.
County attorney Ligon Bundy and his Monroe firm Perry, Bundy, Plyler, Long & Cox have been representing the commissioners. Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton of Raleigh came on board in October to help the county with the appeal. The school district is using the firm of Schwartz & Shaw of Raleigh.
Union County schools have about 42,000 students, and it is the sixth-largest district in the state.
It’s unusual for budget funding disputes to end up in mediation, which the two sides tried first, and it’s even more rare for it to wind up in court.
And while the 2013-14 budget is still very much in dispute, the two boards will soon begin work on the 2014-15 budget. “That is going to be a real challenging environment,” Aikmus said.
Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell
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