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County to give schools $10.9M

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New Pasquotank School Superintendent Larry Cartner (left) talks with County Commissioner Bettie Parker as those attending the announcement of the new superintendent line up to greet him at Pasquotank Elementary School, Friday, May 1, 2015.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pasquotank County commissioners will provide $10.9 million toward Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools' operating costs for next year — more money than last year but still $1.4 million less than what school officials said is needed to maintain current services.

While commissioners' 6-1 vote Wednesday isn't final, it allows county staff to finalize next year’s county budget and present it for adoption next month. Barring any further changes, the budget will provide ECPPS $10.9 million in operating costs plus finance $1 million for various school repairs.

Commissioner Bettie Parker cast the lone vote against the proposal. She said she believes the $10.9 million is not enough for the schools. 

As proposed now, the budget also will not require a property tax increase. But the proposed funding is far less than what ECPPS asked for.

In April, ECPPS Superintendent Larry Cartner said the school district — which has four schools undergoing state-required reforms due to low performance — needs major investment to make up for years of under-funding and rising costs. He asked for $15.8 million in operating funds, but also said ECPPS needed at least $12.3 million to maintain current services. Though not elaborating, he warned insufficient funding would harm schools' performance.

Under the budget as proposed, Pasquotank Finance Officer Sheri Small said the county could only provide about $10.5 million for ECPPS's operations if it also funded the $1.38 million the district requested in capital funding. Spending any more than $10.5 million on the schools would require a property tax increase.

Based on Small’s numbers — and absent cuts elsewhere in the budget — it would take about a 6-cent increase in the county’s tax rate to cover the schools’ $12.3 million request. To cover ECPPS's full $15.8 million request would require a roughly 17-cent increase in the tax rate.

Commissioners Frankie Meads and Joe Winslow said they were strongly opposed to any property tax increase.

Meads said the county's property tax rate, currently 76 cents per $100 in valuation, is already a burden on local businesses. He several times told commissioners that his business could operate in Perquimans County and, even with a loss of sales, make more money because of the lower taxes there.

Meads was also the only commissioner to suggest cuts anywhere else in the county's budget to free up more money for ECPPS. He suggested reducing funding for College of The Albemarle, which would get almost its entire request under the budget as proposed. The community college asked for $1.66 million in operating funds, a $160,000 increase from the current year, and $500,000 for capital projects, a $139,000 increase from last year, based on numbers presented Wednesday.

Commissioner Bill Sterritt strongly opposed cuts to COA, arguing the college “was asking for practically nothing” extra from the county, thanks to receiving state bond funding for a library renovation and other big projects.

Winslow said the county has many people on small, fixed incomes, and they would struggle to afford even a 1- or 2-cent property tax rate increase. Notably, for someone with a $100,000 home, a 1-cent increase would cost them $10 more a year and a 2-cent increase would cost them $20 more a year.

That's too much for people he knows are already struggling, Winslow said.

“I think of that little old lady who called me several years ago,” Winslow said. “Her husband was dead and she was on a fixed income and she was just fighting for survival. This (tax) rate means something to her.”

Parker and Commissioner Jeff Dixon pushed for more funding for the schools, however, and said they were open to a tax increase.

Parker, a retired Northeastern High School teacher, stressed the importance of schools in reducing crime — and all the costs that come with it.

“If you don't pay now, you pay later,” she said. “If you've been in education, you know that if you don't take care of these students now, then you're going to take care of a lot of them when they go to prison.”

Parker urged commissioners to figure out how to provide the $12.3 million the schools’ Cartner requested.

Dixon said that, unlike Winslow, the constituents he encounters are concerned more about schools than taxes. He also noted that U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City Cmdr. Bruce Brown has said Coast Guard service members strongly consider school quality in deciding where to live.

“Taxes weren't even in their top five” concerns about living in Pasquotank, Dixon said. “It's schools, schools, schools.”

Commissioner Lloyd Griffin acknowledged that ECPPS needs more funding for its operating costs – leading him to suggest the county shift about $482,000 in ECPPS' capital request to operating funds. Small explained the $482,000 included projects the county shouldn't finance — meaning they'd need to be paid in full over next budget year. Small proposed financing the remaining $900,000 in capital requests.

Griffin then proposed financing $1 million for ECPPS — giving Cartner some flexibility to find additional projects — and giving the schools $10.9 million in operating funds. 

Reiterating she wanted to find a way to fund Cartner’s $12.3 million request, Parker cast the lone vote against Griffin's proposal.

No representatives from ECPPS were present for county budget meetings this week.

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