Union County budget could set up clash with school board

Union County commissioners held a public hearing on the 2015-16 budget Monday night.
Union County commissioners held a public hearing on the 2015-16 budget Monday night. abell@charlotteobserver.com

Union County’s proposed budget may be setting up another collision course between county commissioners and the school board. Even so, few residents spoke about the budget at a public hearing on the issue Monday night.

The county’s 2015-16 recommended budget gives the school board less money than it asked for. It’s unclear whether this will set off additional litigation between the two boards, which happened over the 2013-14 budget.

The school board is seeking $104 million in operating expenses, a 20 percent increase over the current year. County staff recommended $91.9 million, a 5 percent increase.

Commissioners and the school board initially could not even agree on how much money the school board is asking for in capital funds. The district ended up seeking nearly $20 million in capital funds, a slight increase over the current year, while county staff is recommending $16.6 million.

“I believe that this (budget) recommendation provides more than what is necessary to provide a sound, basic education,” County Manager Cindy Coto said. She called the recommended increase for the district’s operating funds a “significant” one.

Union County Chief Financial Officer Jeff Yates noted that the school district is a high-performing one, with graduation rates and SAT scores well above the state average. “It’s hard to argue that you as a commission have underfunded the district over time,” Yates said.

The school district also is seeking nearly $158 million to go before voters in a bond referendum for renovations, additions or new schools. Commissioners need to approve putting that referendum on the ballot at another meeting, and the earliest that issue would go before voters is next spring.

At the Monday meeting, only two residents spoke on the budget. Both people said they wanted funding to cover cameras in special needs classrooms.

Commissioners expect to approve the budget, including the $262 million general fund, at a June 29 meeting. A public hearing on the budget that was set for early June was postponed following the death of a commissioner’s wife.

For the second year in a row, commissioners are dividing up the budget into two parts, one for school funding and one for all other county functions.

Commissioners already gave tentative approval to an increase of 4.2 percent to the tax rate for general county operations and a countywide fire and EMS tax. The total proposed school district funding would add another 0.5 percent increase to the tax rate

But the average tax bill will actually decrease slightly, despite a higher tax rate, because property values in general decreased following a recent countywide revaluation,

Monday’s focus on the education budget comes a few weeks after the school district ended its lawsuit over funding for the 2013-14 budget.

The district sued the county seeking more money and won a $91 million judgment from a jury. The N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the judgment in April, then rejected the school board’s request for a rehearing. Commissioners voted to spend up to $100,000 for a Charlotte law firm to represent them if the school board sues the county over the budget this year.

Bell: 704-358-5696;

Twitter: @abell