School funding questioned

Published 8:22 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

WINTON – Hertford County has an operating budget approved for the 2013-14 fiscal year, but it didn’t come without a debate over local funding for the county’s public school system.

At their meeting here last Wednesday, the county commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the $24.4 million budget. The lone dissenting vote came from Commissioner Howard Hunter III. His opposition was narrowed to what he felt was excess funds in the budget for Hertford County Public Schools.

“I don’t mind standing alone on this, but I can’t support a budget that puts money in an entity’s fund balance,” said Hunter, referencing the local funding provided by the county to Hertford County Public Schools. “I support education 100 percent. I think (HCPS Superintendent) Dr. (Michael) Perry as well as the board of education does a great job, but when I see them placing funds in their fund balance it’s telling me we give them too much money.

“Some of you might say that I just want to cut the schools’ budget,” Hunter continued. “That’s not true; you can’t cut what they’re not using. We’re holding the line on our budget; we’re trying not to raise taxes and we’re doing that by trying to save our money, keep it in our fund balance.”

Commission Vice Chairman Bill Mitchell responded to Hunter’s statement.

“I like to say to Commissioner Hunter that we appreciate the work you’re doing in Raleigh (as president of the NC Association of County Commissioners); we appreciate the passion that you have you have for this particular situation,” Mitchell stated. “However, I want you to know that I’m just as passionate about this particular area as you are.

“I’ve heard you say on numerous occasions that when you travel east of I-95, it seems like we’re the forgotten entity,” Mitchell added. “It seems in this particular situation with the (state education) voucher plan that’s out there lurking; the 3,000 teacher assistant positions that are on the cutting block; and the $359 million in discretionary reductions (to schools) that are lurking. For five consecutive years, our schools have endured cuts. I don’t think we need to penalize Hertford County Schools for handling money and putting it in their fund balance. We elected them to be frugal with funds and they have done so. I take my hat off to our public school board. As long as I sit in this chair I will be a champion for education.”

Hunter answered by reminding his board colleagues what occurred last year.

“I told you then that the school system was going to receive some (state) money to take care of teacher assistants,” Hunter stated. “We put it in our budget anyway and then they (school system officials) came to us and said they got the state money, which means they got it twice.”

Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer agreed with Hunter.

“The schools are putting a lot of money away, or have been,” he said. “The school folks are saying it’s about the kids and if you’re against the schools putting money away then you’re against kids. Well that’s far from it. I taught at Hertford County High School for 13 years. I loved those kids, and still do.”

Farmer continued, “But you got to separate money from kids; money in the bank is not teaching kids; it’s not being spent on kids. We could have easily cut the appropriation to the schools by $200,000 and given it to the community college who is struggling. The community college is on a shoestring budget; they’ve not filled some open positions just so they can operate. Miss (Loria) Williams is operating the county budget as tight as she can and the schools are enjoying a wealthy fund balance, which isn’t required by state statute. Everyone needs to share in the tightening of the belt.”

In the end, Hunter’s plea was left unfilled as the commissioners, on a motion from Ronald Gatling and a second from Mitchell, approved the budget.

The lion’s share of the new General Fund budget is built on ad valorem taxes ($11.24 million). Other major sources of revenue will come from restricted intergovernmental DSS funds ($3.61 million), sales and use taxes ($3.29 million), vehicle taxes ($1.29 million), fund balance appropriated ($1.18 million), and sales and services ($1.13 million).

DSS (a total of $5.26 million) funding tops the list of the $6.64 million earmarked in the budget for Human Services.

Public education ranks second in the budget appropriations ($5.27 million). HCPS will net the largest share of that money with a current expense fund totaling $4.17 million. Roanoke-Chowan Community College will receive $878,839 in Hertford County taxpayer money plus another $100,000 earmarked for capital outlay.

The public safety portion of the new budget totals $5.93 million. The top three departments receiving that money are the jail ($1.94 million), the Sheriff’s Office ($1.80 million), and Emergency Medical Services ($1.24 million).

Hertford County General Government will gain $3.29 million in the new budget. The largest share of that money goes to Public Buildings and Maintenance ($553,451); Human Resources/Risk Management ($350,877); and Tax Collection ($326,410).

Debt Service totals $1.17 million in the new budget. As expected, construction of the new county courthouse and administrative office will consume the majority of those funds ($968,143).

The new budget also contains over one-half million ($556,979) in Special Appropriations for non-profit/community based organizations.

The new budget is built on an 84-cent property tax rate (unchanged from last year).

County Manager Loria Williams said the new budget does reflect an increase over 2012-13, mainly due to the first debt service payment on the courthouse/administration building will come due in 2013-14.

“Of course we are using (proceeds) from the quarter-cent sales tax that we set aside for payments on this capital project,” Williams reminded the commissioners. “That helps us maintain the current 84-cent tax rate.”

Williams said the new budget does not include a cost of living adjustment for county employees, above and beyond the one provided in January of this year.

“We feel this budget is adequate and appropriate to meet the services of our citizens,” she said.

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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