Board split over funding

Published 8:37 am Thursday, June 9, 2011

WINTON – The plea made here Monday for additional county funds to the coffers of Hertford County Public Schools (HCPS) apparently fell on friendly ears.

Following a closed session to discuss personnel issues, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners returned to open session where a discussion ensued over a request made earlier in the meeting by HCPS Superintendent Dr. John Fahey. Citing huge cutbacks in state-level funding, Fahey requested $240,000 in additional funds from the county.

In a 3-2 vote, the commissioners decided to add $100,000 of what was termed as a “one-time emergency appropriation” to HCPS. That money will be taken from the county’s appropriated fund balance.

Additionally, the commissioners, in the same vote, approved a $25,000 funding increase to Roanoke-Chowan Community College. RCCC officials had requested a $105,000 hike in county funds over the current fiscal year ($778,839).

Commissioner Bill Mitchell, who made the motion to approve the funding increase to both educational entities, said that HCPS Superintendent Dr. John Fahey and RCCC President Dr. Ralph Soney had appeared before the board asking for additional funds from the county.

“These are unprecedented times for education across the state with our state legislators make deep cuts to education,” Mitchell said. “At this time I feel we need to do all we can to promote quality education for our children in Hertford County and at the community college. I felt like we needed to help out, but at the same time not creating a financial burden on our citizens by increasing the tax rate. Taking this money for a one-time emergency from our fund balance was the best course of action.”

Hertford County Manager Loria Williams confirmed that the combined $125,000 in additional money will come from fund balance. She further confirmed that, as instructed by the majority vote of the commissioners, this money is being added to her budget proposal for 2011-12. That overall budget has yet to receive final approval, but is required to be in place by July 1.

“It’s important for the schools to understand this will be, upon approval of the budget, a one-time lump sum appropriation,” Williams said. “We’ll cut a check on July 1 for $100,000 to HCPS.”

The remainder of $4.173 million earmarked for HCPS in Williams’ proposed budget will be divided into 12 equal monthly payments.

By adding the $125,000, it brings the total of appropriated fund balance used in the proposed 2011-12 budget to $1,416,141.

“That’s a considerable increase over what we’ve had in the past,” Williams noted. “I need to interject here that we’ve appropriated fund balance to balance our budget in the past and then wind-up not using it all. Plus, with this proposal, we have a one-time, non-reoccurring emergency appropriation of $125,000.”

Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer said he wasn’t convinced that would be the case.

“No one can make me believe that this will not be a reoccurring request,” said Farmer who, along with fellow Commissioner Howard Hunter III, voted against the funding increases for both HCPS and RCCC.

Farmer noted a budget work session conducted by the commissioners a week ago, one where he said everyone seemed to be on the same page about expenditures.

“We talked about cutting our own departments to the bone,” Farmer recalled. “What we agreed to was across the board cuts to county-operated departments and current year level funding to all outside agencies, like the schools. All five of us agreed to that and then on Monday of this week it all changes.”

Mitchell agreed that there was a consensus among the commissioners a week ago to provide level funding for all outside agencies.

“It’s true, we discussed level funding at that workshop and we left there with the understanding that we were somewhat clear with going with level funding,” Mitchell stated. “I still had some reservations about not doing something extra for the schools. Until we cast a vote, each commissioner has the right to change his mind. I pondered this for several days; I gave this a lot of careful thought and consideration before I decided to make the motion for the increase in funding. I stand firm on this decision.”

Commissioner Ronald Gatling, who joined with Mitchell and fellow board member Curtis Freeman in voting for the increase, said he interpreted level funding in a different way.

“Level funding comes from two pots of money; a calculation that the school system uses to say they deserve a certain amount or the calculation the county uses to figure out what they deserve,” Gatling said.

Mitchell added that in-between the budget workshop and Monday’s meeting, he had no prior discussion with any commissioner concerning his thoughts on increasing funding for the schools.

“I didn’t try to sway the other four commissioners to my way of thinking,” he said. “I felt I did the best thing for the county. The $125,000 will in no way plug the hole left by the state, but maybe it will help them in some way.”

Farmer said he saw things a different way.

“We’ve cut travel; we’ve cut new equipment purchases and decided to hold the line on salaries and not give our employees a raise,” Farmer stressed. “We saved money internally and then gave it to the schools. That doesn’t sit well with me.

“I didn’t have a problem with level funding. I know the state was cutting the schools real hard, but we didn’t cut them; we agreed to level funding. I hate to see us take money from our hard working county employees and give it to someone else,” Farmer concluded.

Hunter said his “no” vote wasn’t personal against HCPS.

“I’m an advocate for public education. I support education 100 percent but I don’t like the way this was handled,” he stated.

Hunter added, “This doesn’t send a good message to our county employees. We asked them to make sacrifices within their departmental budgets and yet keep the same level of services to the county citizens. We asked them to go another year without a raise. And then we turn around and give more money to an outside agency….that’s a slap in the face of our county employees and to our tax paying citizens as well.

Hunter was also bothered by another aspect of the additional funds to HCPS.

“The schools can use this for anything….this money is not allocated for any one item,” he stressed. “We can’t even give our employees a raise, but yet we can give a state agency $100,000 of unallocated money. That’s not right.

We need to take care of our county employees first; for us to go into our fund balance to take care of someone else’s shortfall hurts me to my heart.”

“I wasn’t in favor of the entire $240,000 for the schools, but I wanted to do something,” Gatling said. “The $100,000 we agreed on does not affect the tax rate. I support that.

“The Board of Commissioners serve Hertford County, not just the county departments….we serve the citizens, the farmers, the schools and we need to do what we can to help,” Gatling added. “Sure it’s a tight year, but we’ve done well in saving our money and keeping a close eye on our financial condition. In the grand scheme of things, $125,000 isn’t a lot of money.”

Mitchell said he was in full support of county employees.

“It was my full intent to be creative and provide those entities that had absorbed so many cuts by the state with some additional local funding,” Mitchell stated. “I want to make it very clear that I agreed to give longevity raises to our county employees and I agreed not to pass along the increases we’ll pay this year for medical insurance. I have not and will not turn my back on our county employees.”

Another issue that has surfaced since Monday was why didn’t Gatling and Freeman, both employed by HCPS, recuse themselves from the debate and subsequent vote concerning additional funding for the school system.

“There was no conflict of interest for me on this; I’m not receiving a direct benefit from this,” Gatling said. “If I was voting to increase my salary, then that’s a direct benefit. I would have recused myself if this directly benefitted me, or my wife, or my child. This is a budget for the entire school system, not a budget for Ronald Gatling.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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