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Budget hinges on vote

WINDSOR – A decision is expected Monday.

The Bertie County Board of Commissioners will host a public hearing at 7:20 p.m. on Monday in the Commissioners meeting room concerning the highly conversational 2006-07 county budget.

Following the public hearing, the commissioners may or may not vote on County Manager Zee Lamb’s proposed budget as presented June 5. By law, the new budget must be approved prior to July 1.

While Lamb’s $18.1 million proposal includes no tax or service fee increases, it has become a target of debate, especially from officials within the county’s public school system.

At a special called meeting June 16 by the Bertie Board of Education, Superintendent Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart called Lamb’s proposal “woefully inadequate.”

Dr. Collins-Hart said the proposed county budget fell far short of the system’s $1.77 million request for additional funds over the current year.

In a breakdown of the additional funds, Dr. Collins-Hart said $1,543,000 was needed in the current expense account and $225,000 in capital outlay funds. Her total budget request in local funds is $3.6 million (current expense) and $600,000 (capital outlay).

Lamb’s proposal reflected a 10 percent increase over the current year educational budget funds (to $2.26 million). His budget also proposes $375,000 in capital outlay.

Additionally, Lamb has included in his proposed budget several payments the county is responsible for in regards to the school system.

Those responsibilities include over $212,000 in QZAB loan payments (for renovations to the county’s six elementary schools, including Askewville and J.P. Law which the School Board closed at the end of the current academic year) and nearly $593,000 in payments for the new $18.5 million Bertie County Middle School.

With the debt service figures included, Lamb has appropriated $3,442,851 for educational spending in his proposed 2006-07 budget. That does not include funds for the two community colleges that serve Bertie County n Martin Community College ($50,000) and Roanoke-Chowan Community College ($25,000).

At $3.44 million, educational spending in Bertie County trails only Social Services/Medicaid ($3.52 million) in appropriations.

Meanwhile, several of Dr. Collins-Hart’s budget concerns have stirred debate. That deliberation forced the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald on Friday morning to pull its poll question from its web site. That poll, one asking if the Bertie Commissioners should direct additional funds to the school system, was apparently compromised following a sudden spike in the number of votes (the total responses increased from 365 to 1,680 in less than 16 hours). More than 450 votes were recorded during one 15-minute period on Friday morning, alerting the newspaper that its poll was being manipulated.

Topping the budget debate are pay increases for school system employees whose salaries are paid by county funds.

At last week’s special meeting, Dr. Collins-Hart said that if Lamb’s proposed budget is adopted, Bertie Schools would spend roughly one-half of their $2.26 million on raises. Currently, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley and the General Assembly are attempting to come to terms on raises for all state employees (a hike that could come in at 3 percent, but could go as high as 8 percent).

She emphasized the state pay hikes do not affect Bertie School employees whose salaries are paid by county funds. She said it was customary to offer those employees a salary increase at the same time a state worker was receiving a pay hike.

She said $1.03 million was needed to cover the local raises.

“If we did not spend another dime in current expense funds after giving the raises, that would leave us $1,234,000 to fund all of our other needs,” she noted at the June 16 meeting. “I must point out that $1,234,000 is roughly the same amount our auditor said was necessary to maintain in our fund balance.”

If that’s the case, then she said Bertie Schools will have to completely drain their fund balance in order to implement the priorities set forth by the school board for 2006-07.

Another item of interest is the $550,000 Dr. Collins-Hart said is needed for a turn-around plan at Bertie High School, one of the 44 lowest-performing schools in the state and one targeted by Judge Howard Manning for closure if composite test scores by students do not drastically improve.

On June 12, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley revealed a plan that, if approved, would set aside $4.5 million to use for new educational programs aimed at boosting student achievement at those 44 high schools. If Bertie High School’s end-of-year composite test scores come in under 60 percent, the school will become eligible for a portion of those improvement funds.

“We do not know at this time exactly what the General Assembly will wind up doing with their new budget, one that includes Gov. Easley’s improvement plans for these low-performing schools,” Lamb said.

He continued, “All I can tell you is that the commissioners will listen to what the public has to say on Monday night. They, as they have always done, will vote on what they feel is in the best interest of the citizens of this county. It’s the citizens’ tax money we are talking about and it’s the citizens who put their trust in the county commissioners to wisely distribute those dollars to the many different departments within county government.”

The volume of those dollars directed towards each county service department will be decided by the commissioners, possibly as early as Monday night.