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County eyeing smaller increase for schools

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pasquotank County com­mis­sion­ers are con­sid­er­ing ap­pro­pri­at­ing up to $1 mil­lion more for the El­iz­a­beth City-Pasquotank Public Schools next year — an amount that's still $1.3 mil­lion less than the su­per­in­ten­dent says is needed to main­tain ser­vices at their cur­rent level.

Pasquotank officials have spent the last several weeks reviewing budget requests from various departments and agencies. With all those requests now in, County Manager Rodney Bunch and Finance Officer Sheri Small on Monday presented the most complete picture to date of next year's general fund budget, which may likely total more than $43 million.

Small explained she's expecting another $500,000 in sales tax revenue for the 2017-18 fiscal year, but that growth is offset by various increased costs. Those costs include an increase in debt payments; more funding for social services, College of The Albemarle, the sheriff's department and other departments; and overall increased personnel costs, including a rise in health insurance costs and a proposed $500 salary increase for all county employees.

The budget also includes numerous capital projects, including building repairs, new sheriff's department vehicles, a remounted ambulance, and senior center improvements. The county is also eyeing borrowing $68,000 for a new bookmobile for the W.C. Witherspoon Memorial Library.

Factoring in all those funding requests, there's not nearly as much funding left over for the schools as ECPPS officials had hoped.

Late last month, Superintendent Larry Cartner asked for $15.7 million in operating expenses for the schools — over $5 million more than commissioners allocated the schools in the current budget year.

Cartner said that ECPPS is facing increased costs as well, including for personnel benefits, providing raises to keep locally funded employees on par with state-funded positions, and rising expenses in state-mandated programs.

Cartner also said ECPPS is losing state funding due to a drop in enrollment, including the loss of students to the local charter school, the Northeast Academy of Aerospace and Advanced Technologies. The decreased enrollment, however, hasn’t been large enough to lower the district’s expenses, he said.

Cartner’s operating request also included more than $800,000 in school-specific capital expenses. County officials have yet to get a breakdown of those requests.

However, Cartner also reported that it would take $12.3 million in operating funds to maintain services at their current level.

He also asked for almost $1.4 million for 12 capital projects, including more than $400,000 for roof and window work at Sheep-Harney Elementary School and $229,100 for painting work at River Road Middle School. Cartner is seeking roughly $4 million more in total funding than the county provided for operating and capital expenses this year.

Cartner said ECPPS is feeling the strain of years of under-investment from the county, warning that schools' performance could suffer without more funding. He also noted ECPPS has spent down its fund balance to offset limited county funding over the years, and now has only $717,000 left to use.

Commissioner Jeff Dixon called Cartner's $15.7 million operating request “ridiculous.”  He suggested the county provide ECPPS $11 million in operating funds next year.

To provide $11 million while covering ECPPS's capital projects, however, would leave the county almost $540,000 in the hole, Small reported. She also noted the county is already expecting to use $600,000 of its fund balance to balance next year’s county budget, so she advised against going deeper into the county's reserves.

Based on estimates that each cent of the county's property tax rate will generate $311,520, it would take an almost 2-cent tax rate increase to cover $11 million in school operational costs — absent cuts elsewhere in the county's budget.

Raising the property tax rate appeared to be a nonstarter with commissioners. Commissioner Joe Winslow suggested the county appropriate only $10.5 million to the schools.

Dixon later asked for county staff to present the board with options on how to provide up to $11 million in funding and Winslow agreed with the recommendation. Commissioners will resume discussing school funding at a budget session today at 8 a.m. in the library's community room.

Cartner did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on commissioners' proposal to fund schools at a level much less than his $15.7 million operating request.

Dixon noted Monday that, were the county allowed to levy another quarter-cent in sales tax, it would not have its recurring problem funding the schools’ operational request.

The county asked voters in a referendum last year to allow a quarter-cent increase in Pasquotank’s sales tax rate to raise an estimated $1 million for school funding. Voters rejected the referendum by a two-to-one margin, however. A number of voters said in interviews that they felt taxed enough or didn't know much about how the county would use the extra revenue.

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