Boards vow to work together

Published 9:05 pm Friday, June 4, 2010

JACKSON — At their working group meeting on Wednesday, the Northampton County Board of Education and the Northampton County Board of Commissioners agreed they must work together.

Despite their concerns about building a new, centrally located high school, the commissioners agreed to put together a sub-committee, including school officials, to work together on the issue.

The group began by addressing the additional $2.6 million in capital outlay that the school board had requested from the county. The money, according to the school district budget, would go toward repairs at Northampton County High School-East.

The commissioners previously decided not to go forward with school officials’ proposal using a public-private partnership, which would have a non-profit lease the facility back to the school system and would have a $1 million annual payment. Instead, the commissioners voted to go the route of a general obligation bond, which would leave the decision up to the voters in November. The new high school is estimated to cost $24 million.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins said the goal for the meeting was for the working group, as a whole, to understand the financial situation in the county.

Jenkins explained the budgeting process began this year with the county facing a $3 million shortfall, which did not include the school district’s additional request.

“And as of right now we do not have a source to meet that need,” he said about the additional request coming from the schools.

The reason behind that shortfall includes declining state sales tax reimbursement and local tax collections are down as well creating a little more than $2.2 million revenue shortage.

Jenkins said that the county is facing the need of adding a third EMS crew in the Lake Gaston area due to two EMS volunteers retiring. The cost for that third crew is $428,000.

Jenkins referred to the county’s draft budget and noted the schools were budgeted at $3.5 million for current expense and $345,000 for capital outlay.

He added county employees are not receiving a cost of living increase nor will there be furloughs. He noted that the cost of health insurance did increase by more than 10.8 percent.

“So the economic outlook is not good for ‘10-‘11 (fiscal year and it looks even worse for ‘11-’12,” Jenkins said.

Board of Education member Charles Tyner asked what was in the county’s budget this year that wasn’t in the previous year.

Jenkins pointed about $116,000 appropriation to the Lake Gaston Weed Control Council to help pay for hydrilla treatment and to protect the property value base coming off the lake and a retirement increase passed down by the state.

“Budget guidance was for department heads to maintain a zero percent increase in operating expenses, our department heads did that,” he said. “The increases in the budget primarily come from the increase in retirement and health insurance.”

Jenkins added that there were no new staff positions with the exception of one being considered, a deputy finance officer, which will be presented to the commissioners during their third budget work session on Monday.

“Frankly, there’s no guarantee it will stay there,” he said.

Tyner asked about the increase in taxes the commissioners were considering.

Jenkins said the working budget is currently being configured with a nine cent increase per $100 of value. Six of the nine cents will be appropriated for general government increases, 2.3 cents will be funding for the third EMS crew and six tenth of one cent will be for the appropriation for lake weed control.

Jenkins added one cent on the tax rate generates $177,418.

“You know that last year the school system closed two schools to provide a quality education in our county,” Tyner said.

He added the board did that thinking it would help them with the increases they had. Tyner said the schools are getting better and with test scores about to come out, he was sure people would be able to see that.

“The area we’re really concerned about is capital outlay,” he said. “Everyone knows about Northampton County High School-East, everyone knows that school will not last.”

Tyner said his board wants to work with the commissioners and he wanted to know the commissioners’ future plans for the schools system’s capital outlay.

Commission Chair Fannie Greene said she appreciated Tyner saying he along with the Board of Education wanted to work with the commissioners and that everyone on her board understood the importance of educating the county’s children.

“We’re just in a dilemma right now and we just don’t know where to go,” she said.

Jenkins said it was his opinion that for the long-term the best health for the county as a whole would be to operate one high school.

“I think the Board of Commissioners has made a decision to place it before the voters,” he said. “I think that once the voters have reacted to that question on the ballot, I think the Board of Commissioners at that time will be in a better position to answer that question.”

Jenkins said in the short-term, the two boards needed to look at a plan B to look for the $2.6 million needed in repairs.

Board of Education member Donald Johnson said two things could happen in November; voters could either pass the referendum or not. Either way appropriation would be needed for the new high school or to keep Northampton County High School-East open.

Board of Education Vice Chair Bill Little asked if the voters agreed on the referendum how long would they have to sell or buy general obligation bonds.

Jenkins said they would have seven years and then, upon request by the county board, be granted an additional two.

Johnson noted the schools will be $600,000 short when the stimulus money dries up next year and then the board would be looking to cut teacher positions.

Little said the school district could get through this year, but beyond the 2010-11 fiscal year was “questionable.”

“The worse case scenario: the bond referendum fails, stimulus money dries up and the state projecting already a $3 billion deficit next year; they’ll likely take some more education monies, more (human resources) monies and human services monies,” said Jenkins. “There’s a couple things we can do, but if it’s tight for us sitting around this table trying to operate our agencies it’s just as tight on our families in Northampton County trying to pay their bills and taxes.”

Jenkins said the things that could be explored would be a special school tax for the duration of the referendum, a combination of county appropriation and school tax and giving the school board authorization to levy a tax.

Assistant Superintendent Phil Matthews said, with a bond referendum, he would be the one presenting the facts about a new centrally located high school.

“What I would like to see, if possible, is to have the two boards work together to come up with a (financial) strategy, because funding is a big item when you’re trying to educate people (on a bond referendum),” Matthews said. “I really don’t want to go out there, promote a bond, educate the citizens and then if it passes have another (financial strategy).”

School board and county officials agreed they needed to get together and have a financial plan.

Following new Board of Education members coming on in July, the two entities will formulate a sub-committee to study the financial aspect of a new high school as well as a backup plan for funding repairs to NCHS-East.