By Richard Sullins |

For the third year in a row, the Lee County Board of Education asked the county commissioners to fund an increase in the local supplements paid to teachers and support staff. This year, inflation was an additional factor in the equation. And for the third year in a row, the commissioners voted it down.

In the two previous budget cycles, the vote was split along partisan lines, with four Republicans in opposition and the board’s three Democrats in favor. But on Monday night as the commissioners took final action on the county’s budget that takes effect July 1, only one member – Republican Bill Carver – favored the plan submitted by the school board this spring.

The school board had asked for almost $22 million in local funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year, a 10 percent increase over their county funding for the current year. Included in that request was a proposal for a one-time $1,200 per full-time employee supplement as a bridge to a new program that would be implemented in the 2024-25 budget year.

But Republican control of the school board didn’t translate to support of its entire budget request. When County Manager Lisa Minter presented her budget overview to the commissioners in May, she recommended the school board receive only a $523,500 increase in county current expense funding, about 20 percent of what the district had requested. Minter’s recommendation had its roots in the commissioners’ desire expressed in January to do a significant tax reduction in a property reappraisal year.

School board finance committee chairman Alan Rummel, speaking not in an official capacity but as a parent, told the commissioners during a public hearing on the budget that “I am opposed to the budget that you guys have before you tonight” and he urged them to reject the county manager’s plan.

Rummel said he believed the plan put forth by the school board this year was superior to the ones presented over the previous two years and that the “business case” made in this year’s plan showed the kind of focus on achievement and growth that had been lacking before. After ticking off some of the increases proposed for other county departments, Rummel said that the allocation for schools in 2023-24 is “the bottom of the barrel” that left employees “hanging out to dry.”

Carver made one last-ditch attempt to put more money into the school district’s account through a motion that would have raised the new tax rate by a penny. That would have meant an additional $878,247 in revenue for the schools. But the other six commissioners wanted to hold taxes as low as they could and didn’t budge, leaving Carver’s motion to fail.

The decision not to fund the supplements next year was not one that several commissioners relished. Democrat Mark Lovick said it was one of a handful of choices that were among the toughest to make.

“I like to do things for our teachers as much as we can, but we also have to take into greater consideration the citizens of Lee County,” he said. “I think that the state puts us in a tough place sometimes when we have to come up with local money to supplement what they provide for our teachers to live on. This was not a vote against our teachers tonight. I hope they see that. We love our teachers, and we support them. There are so many needs out there and our job is to do what we can for them all. That’s what we’ve all tried to do.”

Lee County Schools has funded one-time teacher bonuses during each of the past two years by tapping into unspent portions of the county’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief funds provided by Congress for COVID-19 relief. The last of those dollars must be obligated by the end of September in 2024.

The tax cut that will raise taxes

State law requires that counties adopt a plan for revenues and expenditures before June 30 of each year. And at $105 million, it’s the largest budget in the county’s 116 year history.

But it’s more than just a plan on how the county’s money is to be spent. The budget also establishes the rate at which real and personal property will be taxed during the next fiscal year. The document approved by the commissioners reflects a cut from last year’s tax rate of 73 cents per $100 of property valuation to 65 cents and in most years, this would have amounted to more dollars in the pockets of Lee County taxpayers.

But not this year.

During the first six weeks of 2023, all property in individual and corporate hands was reassessed in a process set forth in the state’s general statutes. The law requires that property be revalued at least once every eight years, but it’s done every four years here to help soften the impacts on the bank accounts of the county’s taxpayers.

The real estate boom that Sanford and Lee County have been experiencing for the past few years is largely based in the state’s continuing position as a top relocation destination. As new residents continue to move here from the Triangle and other regions, competition for housing remains tight and available inventory still lags behind, driving up property values everywhere.

That increase in value is what allowed the property tax rate to fall from 73 cents this year to 65 cents in 2023-24. But the cut in the rate won’t help most taxpayers at all.

When real and personal properties were reassessed last winter, they increased in Lee County by an average of 32 percent. That simply swallows up the 8 cents per $100 in valuation cut in the tax rate, and many will be left owing more this year than in previous years.

Fire tax proposal abandoned for now

Another proposal in the draft budget didn’t make the final cut. That plan would have scrapped the current system for assessing rural property owners in order to fund rural volunteer fire departments. For the past 16 years, residents in more populous townships have paid a lesser fire tax percentage than others where the population is less dense.

For years, some fire districts across the country have made use of another system that establishes one flat rate under which all residents served by rural fire departments are assessed. Its proponents say that such a system could level the playing field for funding and make administration of purchasing new equipment and supplies easier through centralization.

That flat rate fire tax had been included in Minter’s proposal. But a large number of firefighters spoke against the implementation of such a plan without having adequate time to design and test it. The final budget approved by the commissioners Monday abandoned plans to move ahead with making the change during the new budget year.

Four firefighters spoke during the public comment period for the budget about maintaining the existing system for at least another year until a new one can be agreed on and put through its paces.

“Thank you for listening to our concerns last time, and we look forward to working with you and the proper entities to get this done in the right way,” said Kenneth Gilstrap of the Tramway Fire Department.

Seven volunteer fire departments would have been impacted if the plan had been adopted. Three – Northview, Tramway, and Lemon Springs – would have seen their rates increase while four others – Cape Fear, Carolina Trace, Deep River, and Pocket – would have experienced lower rates.

Capital projects approved

A smaller but equally significant segment of the county budget also saw approval Monday night when the commissioners voted to adopt a five year program to finance and build capital projects through the 2027-28 fiscal year.

The Capital Improvements Program goes through a similar process of proposal, review, and recommendation that current expense dollars do for other needs, but these funds have a different purpose altogether in that they relate to construction, repairs, and renovations of facilities. During Fiscal Year 2023-24, Lee County will carry out projects that will amount to $66,203,110.

For new construction, land must sometimes be acquired, and its topography is a major factor in the design of a modern facility. The design also hinges on its purpose and those persons who will be using it, and architects often spend a year or more crafting a space that will be as useful as it is attractive.

High on the list of projects that will receive funding during the new budget year is the building out of the Moore Center on the Sanford campus of Central Carolina Community College. Lee County will spend $2,975,000 in the coming year as the campus build-out continues.

Formerly the home of the Magnetti Marelli automotive group for nearly 50 years, the Center was acquired by the county in 2021 on behalf of the college and the facility will be retrofitted into a multi-purpose training facility for 21st Century industries, including Vietnamese EV car company VinFast, who plans to train its workers there in support of its Moncure fabrication and assembly facility that will open in 2025.

Two projects that will take 24 months to construct include the Multi-Sports Complex (receiving $22,950,000 in 2023-24) and the new Lee County Library expansion ($8,832,500) will also receive funding during the new fiscal year.

A critical need for Lee County Schools is the construction of an auditorium and six new classrooms at Southern Lee High School. When the campus was completed in 2005, insufficient funds were available to add these facilities as planned and they have remained undone for more than 17 years. School board chair Sherry Womack asked the commissioners to make this addition a priority in the coming year, but a limited cash flow over the next 12 months again made it seem that it would have to be pushed back to 2024-25.

But then, Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives proposed using a portion of unspent lottery proceeds during the coming year to accelerate the design phase of the Southern Lee project, carrying out that work at the same time as the improvements to be done to the auditorium at Lee County High School. By a unanimous vote, the commissioners approved the initiative which will cut a full year off the length of the start to finish timeline for the auditorium and classrooms.

The final vote to adopt the $105 million budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24 was unanimous.