Orange County gives budget tentative OK. Dorosin calls Durham Tech cut ‘irresponsible.’

·6 min read

A $240.8 million general fund budget that will raise taxes for some Orange County property owners and include only a small increase in local school funding got tentative approval Tuesday night.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners also backed a $50.9 million budget for construction projects and big-ticket purchases, voting 6-1 to on a plan to adopt the final budget June 15.

The 2021-22 budget — slightly more than County Manager Bonnie Hammersley had recommended — would take effect July 1.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin voted no, saying he would reject the budget June 15, because the board cut $25.5 million from Durham Tech’s long-planned Orange County expansion.

Commissioner Jamezetta Bedford, who asked to delay the expense, said a second building for the 20-acre campus would be great, but the budget is being stretched to repay county debt and prioritize housing, education and other needs.

“This is all about fiscal risk and how people perceive fiscal risk and fiscal opportunity,” she said. “It’s not about quality of projects.”

Dorosin called it “hypocritical” for the board to say it values education and social and economic justice but withdraw support for the project. Local schools, especially the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, do “not effectively serve students of color and low-wealth students and families” who depend on Durham Tech, he said.

“Budgets are a reflection of your values, and I don’t think this budget really reflects the values of the community,” Dorosin said. “I think cutting the Durham Tech budget is irresponsible and unjustifiable.”

Property taxes

The budget would set next year’s tax rate at 81.87 cents per $100 in assessed property value, a 3-cent increase over the revenue neutral rate set following the county’s recent revaluation.

A revaluation aligns real property values with their market value and determines the “revenue neutral” rate that would bring in the same amount of money as it did under previous property tax values.

The previous tax rate was 86.79 cents per $100 in property value.

The revenue neutral rate for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district tax is now 18.30 cents per $100 in assessed property value, down from 20.18 cents.

The owner of a home valued at $350,000 would get a $2,865.45 county property tax bill — an increase of $105. Property owners in the towns and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district pay additional property taxes.

A tax rate increase has been expected to cover debt payments related to the county’s $125 million voter-approved affordable housing and school construction bond. The county delayed a planned 1.67-cent tax-rate increase last year because of the pandemic.

Education spending

Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County Schools would get $89.3 million in local funding, or $4,367 in local dollars for each student. The school districts also get state funding and a smaller amount of federal money.

Roughly $53.9 million would be allocated to CHCCS — about $7.9 million less than requested — while the county schools would get $35.4 million, or roughly $2.9 million less than requested.

The district tax would provide at least $24 million more for the city schools. Property owners who live in the county school district do not pay a school district tax.

The school districts also could receive $11 million from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. That money can be spent through 2024.

The county budget also allocates $27.5 million to the districts’ capital expenses, maintenance projects and information technology infrastructure, as well as $3.6 million for school resource officers in the middle and high schools, and nurses in all the schools.

Public safety, federal recovery funds

Two budget amendments failed Tuesday, one from Commissioner Jean Hamilton that would have used $3 million in federal recovery money to support social, emotional and mental health; technology; and other local school needs.

“We serve 20,000 children in our districts. The needs are immense, and yes, this is ARPA money to get us through. Yes, the schools have funds themselves, but (that money) will be used pretty quickly to try to address the educational deficits,” said Hamilton, a former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member.

Bedford, also a former school board member, argued that Chapel Hill-Carrboro has $11 million available in its fund balance, or savings, and could get over $10 million in COVID-19 recovery funds. The county district has a smaller fund balance but expects nearly $12 million in recovery funds.

“I think they are going to be OK, and we’ll look to support them in future years, recognizing that we are still below the national average ... and if we find out that the enrollment has increased more than we expect, I know that this board will come back and look if we need to do a budget amendment,” Bedford said.

Dorosin, who is stepping down July 31, also sparred with Sheriff Charles Blackwood over a proposed 5% cut — roughly $109,309 — in the Sheriff’s Office budget.

Blackwood responded by noting the mental health, court diversion, criminal justice reform and training programs that his office has implemented. He also cited a jail staffing study that identified a need for 31 more employees, evidence storage and courthouse staff.

“All of these programs cost money, and while we have been fiscally responsible, reducing an already trimmed down budget ... makes it difficult if not impossible to achieve the goals being asked of us by those demanding change in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Dorosin’s amendment failed to get support from other commissioners.

Budget highlights

Property tax relief: The board approved $250,000 to help taxpayers affected by the revaluation pay their property tax bills. The fund would serve those making up to 80% of the area median income. The board would decide other requirements later this summer.

County employees: Employees would not get a raise for the second year, but could receive merit pay in January. The county’s living wage for all permanent and temporary employees will increase to $15.40 per hour.

Climate change: The board voted 6-1 to support a proposal from Commissioners Amy Fowler and Sally Greene to move $268,332 — half of the Climate Change Mitigation Funds — into school and county sustainability projects. Greene’s version of the plan, which was adopted, saves any unused money for next year and creates a competitive process for allocating money to the schools.

Library funding: The McDougle Branch Library would close and the Cybrary in downtown Carrboro would expand. The Hillsborough library would cut its operating hours. The board also supported a 5.6% Chapel Hill Public Library funding cut — roughly $31,816.

Broadband service: The board backed a suggestion from Commissioners Earl McKee and Greene to use $5 million in federal recovery funds to design and invest in broadband infrastructure serving county households that lack any or adequate internet service.

Recycling fee: The fee would remain $142.

Fire service taxes: Six fire departments — Damascus, Efland, Little River, Orange Rural, Southern Triangle and White Cross — will increase the tax rates charged to residents who live in their fire service districts.

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