Union County

Commissioners set to OK tax hike

Except for two parents who asked Union County Commissioners to provide funding for video cameras in the school system’s special needs classrooms, no one spoke June 15 at the county’s budget public hearing.

Now it appears the commissioners are poised to approve their 2015-2016 budget at a special meeting June 29 at 7 p.m. Their budget does meet the funding requests made by the Union County Board of Education, whose finances were the focus of Monday’s public hearing.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Yates gave a presentation outlining why the county plans to provide $91.9 million in current expense funding for Union County Public Schools, instead of the requested $104.4 million.

One of his slides compared the school’s spending to its budget over a five year period. Yates said it showed Union County Public Schools was not using all of its budgeted funds, and that in 2014 the system underspent its budget by $168.78 per student – or about 8 percent.

“You find this fairly significant disparity every year,” he said. “What this told us was, that there’s this pattern, looking back over time, of underspending the budget. So we believe there’s room in their budget to fit in some of these requests that they have.”

Reached by email after the meeting, Board of Education Chairman John Collins said he asked the school system’s finance department to look into the information in Yates’ presentation because it doesn’t match the board’s figures. He shared the response by email with an Observer correspondent, but did not indicate the name of the finance department staff member who provided it.

The response said the chart about underspending “is a distortion/exaggeration of data because it suggests that the only Current Expense fund UCPS has is the Local Current Expense Fund.”

It also said the chart’s information “is further distorted by the County Staff trying to estimate FY15 with data only through April 2015.”

“It is a distortion/exaggeration to lead the public to believe we have had underages for five years of over $5 million a year which suggests that we have over $25 million of savings (a.k.a. fund balance) built over this time frame,” the response said.

Board of Education Vice Chairman Leslie Boyd said she has questions about the information in that slide and believes the difference in the figures represents funds that have been earmarked for projects that haven’t been completed.

“I think the bottom line is they’re going to give us what they give us, based on their analysis,” she said of the commissioner’s budget. “The next step now is we have to figure out how to allocate and spend what we’ve been given.”

The $91.9 million recommendation is a 5.54 percent increase over the $87 million the county provided in 2014-2014, Yates said. It includes $5 million – instead of the requested $11.2 million – for increased teacher supplements, and $868,806 for performance-based pay increases for noncertified employees.

The county’s proposed funding also includes $16.6 million for capital projects, instead of the $19.7 requested by UCPS. The county’s capital funding recommendation includes $1.3 million for additional and upgraded security cameras.

The commissioners also will be deciding, at a later meeting, whether to call for a bond referendum to fulfill the BOE’s request for $158 million for capital projects.

Another chart in Yates’ presentation showed how Union County’s schools beat state averages in graduation rates, test scores and college enrollment.

“We do have a high performing school system. So I think it’s hard to argue that you, as a commission, have under-funded schools over time,” Yates said, referencing the school district’s lawsuit over the 2013-204 budget that resulted in a $91 million judgment for the schools.

The judgement has since been overturned and the school system recently dropped its appeal.

The county’s proposed school budget includes an increase in the schools’ ad valorem tax rate – from .4550 cents to .4572 cents per $100 valuation.

The county uses a bifurcated process that separates the school’s budget from the general county budget and assigns a tax rate for the school. When the school’s new ad valorem tax rate is combined with the county’s tax rates for general operations and a countywide tax for fire and EMT service, the new, total rate will be .7765 cents per $100 valuation. That is a 2 percent increase over the current .7614 cents countywide rate.

Commissioners held a public hearing in May about the general county budget, which includes $153.4 million in general fund revenues and expenditures.

Board of education member Gary Sides, who attended Monday’s hearing, said after the meeting that he thinks the commissioners’ proposal “is a budget we can work with. It’s going to meet operational needs, I believe, and still have enough to make necessary repairs and improvements from the capital budget.”

For more information or to see the presentation, click on the budget link at http://www.co.union.nc.us/.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at jbduckwall@gmail.com.