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2017-11-15 / Front Page

County: Budget priorities to get equal weight

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Under the county’s new budget development process, school funding requests no longer automatically take precedence over other local government services.

As County Administrator Joe Casey outlined in an Oct. 31 letter to Superintendent James Lane, a copy of which was provided to the Observer, the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget will be “built in a more incremental manner” that allows all community priorities to be considered equally by the Board of Supervisors.

According to Casey’s letter, local funding for the school system currently is projected to grow by nearly $6.3 million during fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1, 2018.

That is $4 million less than the increase between fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

The estimated $281.3 million transfer “has been calculated to accommodate certain baseline costs,” the letter notes – the same process by which county government departments develop their annual budget requests.

It includes funding for a 2 percent salary increase for all school employees, as well as a 7 percent increase in the school system’s share of employee health care costs.

To fund other initiatives, such as changing school start times, the school system must provide the Board of Supervisors current and future cost projections, goals and methods to quantify whether it is meeting those objectives.

It also will have to compete with priorities in public safety and transportation, among other areas. That marks a significant departure from the way the county has divided up the local revenue pie over the past several years. “All the Board of Supervisors is saying is, ‘Let’s make sure we aren’t overlooking any needs in our broad range of services,’ ” said Matt Harris, the county’s budget director. “The process as it has existed in the past didn’t give the board as much flexibility as it has now.”

The school system’s annual budget has increased by $99 million since fiscal year 2012, when the Board of Supervisors and School Board launched a joint effort to gradually restore funding that had been cut during the recession. A little less than half of that money – approximately $48 million – has come from local tax revenues.

Over the past seven fiscal years, as real estate assessments have climbed steadily toward pre-recession levels, 44.3 percent of all local tax dollars have been allocated to the school system.

By comparison, the county’s three public safety agencies (police, fire/EMS and sheriff) received 22.2 percent of the county’s general fund revenues over the same period. But as the county faces new challenges from a rapidly aging population, with an increasing number of homes that don’t have school-age children, the Board of Supervisors is re-evaluating how it funds local priorities.

“Education funding should be based on [enrollment] growth rather than increased real estate assessments,” said Dorothy Jaeckle, the board’s chairwoman, in an email. “Although, I will always adamantly maintain that educating children is the responsibility of all citizens regardless of whether they have children in school, we cannot ignore the needs of all our citizens.”

Noting that the school system and county government ended fiscal year 2017 with a combined $23 million surplus, some citizens have asked the Board of Supervisors to cut the property tax rate and offset the effect of rising assessments on local homeowners.

“That’s something we’ll evaluate going forward,” Harris added. ¦

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