Why I voted against the budget
There’s been a lot of hype about “fat” in the county budget and even promises of tax cuts. However, in this year’s adopted budget, the real “cuts” came at the expense of our children’s education.
The now well-known Wingate University study, which analyzes our tax base, is a favorite sound bite for local politicians. However, what isn’t widely repeated from that study is the affirmation that our schools are the number one economic driver in this county. I, for one, fail to see the logic in choosing to jeopardize the county’s most valuable asset.
The buzzword of this budget has been “sustainable.” However, like many families in today’s economy, the schools are well past the point of cutting nonessentials like family vacations, eating out, cable TV or a reduction in Christmas and birthday spending. They are now being forced to cut important things (comparatively speaking) like dentist checkups, eye exams and youth sports involvement; things that, in tough times, you can live without, but are imperative for long-term physical, mental and emotional health and development. When the revenues increase, those kinds of cuts are not frills.
Our schools, in exchange for these sacrifices, simply asked that if they made the tough, troubling cuts now, funds to restore those key elements, when available, would be reinstated. An offensive request as characterized by Commissioner Jonathan Thomas? Hardly … that request is absolutely reasonable; in fact, an expectation that we should have for our children.
Those who supported cutting education, even though they promised not to, claim that the schools account for 60 percent of the county’s budget. This is spin. Operations of our schools is only 35 percent of the budget, the rest is debt – a direct result of the growth of this county … policy set by county and municipal government, not “the schools.” In fact, the schools incurred no “debt” until it was voted on by the public. Only after being promised the tax revenues to pay the debt did construction begin. However, the tax requirements were never fully implemented, so the schools did not get the promised revenue. Yet still they are targeted for cuts.
While this budget claims to give “more” funding to the schools, in reality, the schools forfeited $5 million even as student enrollment continues to increase. The cut comes in the form of capital outlay … expenses like air and heat, additions, renovations and roofs, as well as desks, computers and instructional apparatus. These are real and necessary costs. They won’t disappear because they aren’t funded and, when needed, will result in a direct cut to the operations of the schools like teachers, assistants and media specialists and will cause larger classroom sizes and fewer resources.
Is the budget at least “sustainable” at the expense of our educational system? Not exactly. The budget takes one-time money to make payments on recurring expenses … namely, the annual debt on our public safety radio system and school bonds. Thus, we will start $2.6 million in the hole next year.
Does the budget result in no tax increase for the citizens? Not exactly. With the exception of just a few fire districts, the vast majority of citizens in Union County will experience an increase in either their property tax rate or their fire fee … some actually doubled!
Some creative solutions were offered. To fund county transportation, a charge of just $3 per license plate renewal could have been implemented. This would have funded the Charlotte Area Transit System routes (all of them), kept the Communities Alternatives Program intact, funded some capital outlay for schools, or deleted most of the fire service increases to name a few. However, there was no willingness to explore that proposal. Yet, we continue to give more than $330,000 of taxpayer dollars to charities. While every charity the county supports (as well as many more that cannot be supported) contributes valuable services within the community, in time of economic crisis where we aren’t properly funding the education of our children, or increasing citizen safety through fire department funding (arguably the two main functions of local government), perhaps we should allow our taxpayers to keep their money and donate to the charities they choose for themselves.
So, where’s the good news? The county did have more than $4 million more than it anticipated in revenues over expenses. Did we take that surplus and lessen the burden on our citizens for fire service, fund the educational needs of our children, keep our trash drop-off location in Indian Trail open, or, as promised during the election, cut taxes? No!
While I thank the staff for their months of hard work and acknowledge that the final product was dictated by a majority of the commissioners, I could not, in good conscience, vote in favor of this budget.
County Commissioner Tracy Kuehler