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Clearing the air

JACKSON – Armed with less revenue than a year ago and faced with a budgetary shortfall in excess of $4.5 million, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners had some tough decisions to make as they worked to build a new budget for FY 2015-16.

What this five-member board, elected by their peers from Vultare to Rich Square and all points in between, did not want was to initiate a property tax increase. Northampton property owners already pay 92 cents in tax (based on $100 of value). That represents the second highest property tax rate in the state, trailing only Scotland County ($1.03).

When the Commissioners approved the county’s FY 2015-16 operating budget back in late June, one that did not include a projected tax hike, it lit a fuse to an ensuing public outcry over the lack of a funding increase to Northampton Public Schools.

The school system did receive “level funding” – meaning they were awarded the same as 2014-15: $3.3 million in current expense money and $345,000 in capital outlay. Although they did not lower the amount of local dollars that helps to fund public education in the county, the Commissioners listened at their July 20 meeting as the public lobbied for additional education dollars.

“First and foremost, the county understands and has that same passion as the public for education,” said County Manager Kimberly Turner in responding to the public comments heard on July 20. “The Board of Commissioners has a difficult job in providing funding for 108 programs/departments/agencies with a stagnant revenue source and they do an excellent job in balancing the needs of the county with an affordable tax rate for all.”

At the close of the July 20 meeting, the Commissioners agreed to increase funding for the county’s public schools by $550,000. The county will allocate an additional $275,511.12 for the Board of Education’s current expense fund, bringing that total appropriation to $3,575,511.12. In the capital outlay budget, the Commissioners agreed to add $274,488.88 thus resulting in a new budget totaling $619,488.88.

Turner noted that the additional funding will not be appropriated until the actual monies have been identified by the county’s annual audit in October.

Additionally, the Commissioners agreed to a Board of Education request that will allow the voters of Northampton County to decide the fate of a supplemental tax that will cover the costs of building a combined middle school/high school that will be centrally located in the county. That voter referendum will take place in May of next year.

Turner said the added funding came on the heels of a joint meeting held July 7 between the Commissioners and the Northampton Board of Education. That mediation process was initiated on June 29 by the Northampton County Board of Education through the dispute resolution process as outlined under General Statute 115C-431.

“On the same day following that joint meeting, the staff members and attorneys of both the county and our school system met and reached a compromise to provide additional funding in the amount of $550,000 from the county’s undesignated fund balance (fund balance is unspent monies from previous fiscal years) and a plan to construct a new centrally located school by way of a voter referendum for a supplemental school tax,” Turner stated. “The Board of Commissioners took no pride in having to go through mediation and tried to avoid it by informing the Board of Education of the lack of county revenues in March of this year.”

At the mediation meeting, Turner said the loss of property values across the county, to the tune of 7.55 percent, forced the Commissioners not to increase funding to the local public schools for 2015-16.

“We knew earlier this year that we would be going into the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget process with less revenue than we had in 2014-15,” Turner said at that meeting. “The Commissioners did not want to raise taxes and place a burden on the taxpayers. They knew and I knew that we could not appropriate any additional funding over 2014-15 and we would have to decrease operating expenses in order to balance the 2015-16 budget. In order to cover the additional funding requests made by the school system in the amount of three million dollars, we would have to increase taxes by 17.567 cents.”

Turner added that during the public comments at the July 20 meeting, there was a comparison made between Warren, Hertford and Northampton counties in reference to appropriations to their respective public school systems.

“Any comparisons between counties are not completely accurate because not all counties provide the same services, have the same amount of revenue, or appropriate funds to the same entities,” she said. “The figure that was provided for Hertford County was the appropriation to their public school system for last fiscal year, and Warren County’s ad valorem tax revenue is $2,071,942 more than Northampton County’s.

“There was also a comment at the meeting about the county not providing sufficient funding and that is the reason why teachers are leaving the area,” Turner continued. “By law, the state is responsible for teacher salaries/benefits as well as teacher assistants. The county is responsible for facility needs and to provide enough operational funding such that when it is added to all other funding the school unit receives it is sufficient for the school unit to meet minimum constitutional requirements for providing a sound, basic education.”

Turner referenced another comment at the July 20 meeting that implied the county’s public school system was failing due to lack of funding.

“Funding is provided by dollar amount for every student in Northampton County, including Northampton County students that attend the charter school. If a student leaves the public school system and attends the charter school, the same funding follows that student,” she noted.

Turner said when the Commissioners began its budget work sessions back in March, the county was facing a $4.6 million shortfall.

“In order to balance our budget, we cut programs and additional funding to several entities, as well as decreased departmental operating expenditures by $433,464,” she stated.

To get the financial spreadsheet to balance, Turner said cuts were made….to include a plan to add a full-time position to the county’s public library, and cutting funds to the NC Forest Service, the community colleges, the Lake Gaston Weed Control Council, and to the two airports that serve the county.

The new budget also did not provide cost-of-living salary increases for employees of Northampton County local government.

“We also had to cut our program that provides services to the county’s senior citizens,” Turner added.

Still, in the end, Turner had to move $1.3 million of the county’s fund balance to the new 2015-16 budget.

“We understand the frustration from the public; however, all we ask is that you please get properly informed prior to forming opinions from people that only have one side of the story.

“We thank you for this opportunity to clarify some of the misunderstandings that have occurred. If anyone would like further details or clarification, please contact the County Manager’s office at 252-534-2501,” Turner concluded.

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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