Cabarrus to begin budget review

Since voters Tuesday approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase, the Cabarrus County commissioners will have just a bit more money to put against millions in debt as they begin pondering the budget for fiscal 2011-12.

With all precincts reporting late Tuesday, 60 percent of voters favored the tax, and 40percent opposed it.

A scant 3.5percent of registered voters cast ballots in the referendum.

Officials expect the tax to generate about $4.6 million per year to help pay down the county's $597 million debt. The county incurred most of the debt to pay for school construction and renovations.

"I really appreciate the ones who came out to vote," said Liz Poole, commissioners vice chairwoman and a former county school board chairwoman. "The important thing was having the vote."

Beginning next week, the commissioners will start to look at the county's budget, Poole said. They expect to approve a budget June 20.

Poole also said, "The outcome was the right decision for the county and residents.... I'm not real happy about the turnout, and I wish more people would have come out for such an important election."

Commissioner Christopher Measmer said he thought the voter turnout would have been higher, and the campaign could have been organized better, if the referendum had been scheduled in November.

"I'm extremely disappointed with the voter turnout, and I'm disappointed there was not more of an awareness campaign," he said.

Measmer said it is still too early to tell whether the county will have to cut services in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. He said funding for other services can be cut before the county would have to look at cutting areas such as parks, libraries and veterans services.

As of last June 30, the county owed $277 million on school projects, $150 million on bond issues for school construction and $5 million on campus expansions at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

The rest of the debt is for construction of the new county jail and Law Enforcement Center and of Lake Howell, the county's water supply, commissioner Bob Carruth said.

The new sales tax will go into effect Oct. 1 and expire after 20 years, generating an estimated $60million to $80 million over that period, Carruth said.

During the past decade, the county acquired the debt largely by building 17 new public schools and renovating 18 other school buildings to accommodate a rapidly growing population, Poole said.

This year, debt payments are 22percent of the county budget, at $42.3 million. The county will owe that much annually for the next five years, Carruth said.