The Orange County Board of Commissioners passed its 2018-19 budget on June 19. According to the board, the budget's adoption stressed the county’s continued investments in education and affordable housing.
The budget introduced a county-wide property tax 1.27 cents higher than the current fiscal year’s. This is the second such increase in the last 10 years.
The revenue from the increased taxes will go towards paying the debt service from the issuing of two voter-approved bonds from November 2016, concerning public schools and affordable housing.
Todd McGee, the Orange County community relations director, said that these funds keep Orange County schools as one of the highest funded in terms of local spending in the state.
The county expense contribution to schools increased per student by $174, totaling $4,165 per student.
But not everyone is satisfied with Orange County’s efforts in education this year.
Chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board Rani Dasi said that, despite her gratitude for Orange County’s continued dedication, she was disappointed by the lack of met needs the budget provided.
The adopted budget, Dasi said, is really a continuation budget, which will mostly go towards increasing teacher salaries and benefits for staff.
According to McGee, the main issue faced by the Board this year was a pressure on revenues.
“There was not additional revenues that they could use to really consider any kind of expansion items so they were really just trying to maintain the budget and maintain the service programs that we currently offer with the revenues that were still available,” McGee said.
One particular area of funding Dasi said was left unmet is mental health support for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City middle and high schools.
According to Dasi, the CHCCS Board asked for mental health support for middle schools as well as a budget to provide a psychologist or other mental health professional for each of their traditional high schools.
“We just feel strongly given the stress of today from a lot of different areas and what we know about what students are experiencing that there’s a high need for support in mental health,” Dasi said.
Dasi said that without the funding, the CHCCS board will try to find a way to internally support mental health as much as they can. Although their primary focus is on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Dasi also expressed overall concern for school budgets throughout the county.
“I think beyond Chapel Hill-Carrboro we continue to also think a lot about the impact of Orange County total," Dasi said. "Orange County Schools did not receive a significant portion of their funding requests."
Stephen Halkiotis, Chair of the Orange County School Board, said that their schools would face significant changes because of the budget decisions.
“I was disappointed because what it’s going to mean for Orange County Schools is some drastic cuts that we were trying to avoid, and this is going to be the first time in a long, long time that we’re going to have to not fill positions,” Halkiotis said.
Halkiotis, who also served as a county commissioner for 20 years, said that this would be the first time in the school system’s history that they would not pay teacher assistants for non-school days, meaning that any help teacher assistants would provide on teacher-work days is unpaid.
“We are going to have to dip into our limited fund balance to keep our reading teachers in place, and we are also going to spend $100,000 from fund balance to maintain our universal breakfast program,” Halkiotis said.
The program provides free breakfast to all elementary-aged children.
Halkiotis said that if things don’t improve, next year’s budget will be a similar challenge.
“It’s just hurting the kids in the Orange County School System. That’s the bottom line,” Halkiotis said. “And we told the county commissioners that really clearly during several budget presentations, and they felt that because their bond issue was going out that they could only provide so much funding.”
Considering it is only the second county-wide property tax increase in 10 years, McGee said that the 1.27 cent rise in the new budget has not caused much of an uproar among citizens.
This decision echoes a similar move by the Chapel Hill Town Council with their budget, in which homeowners face a 2-cent rise in the property tax rate in the next budget. The past three budgets had no tax increase.
The adoption of the Orange County budget included the approval of a local voucher program that supplements the Housing Choice Voucher Fund. This fund provides rental assistance to families and individuals at or below fifty percent of Orange County’s median income for their family size.
According to the Orange County Board of Commissioners website, the county currently has a waiting list of residents applying for support.
Besides education and affordable housing, the budget also includes a 2 percent pay raise for county employees and sets minimum salary standards consistent with the Orange County Living Wage Formula.
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