Forsyth budget discussions focus on cuts to education, environmental programs

by Keith Barber

Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall listens as Denise McCoy, a home-school coordinator at Konnoak Elementary School, speaks during a public hearing on the county’s proposed 2011-2012 budget on Monday. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

The Forsyth County Commission is considering cutting the county’s environmental agency, reducing spending for the local school system and omitting a $40 million library bond in its capital improvement program for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The commissioners discussed all aspects of the proposed $402.3 million budget during a workshop on May 19.

The library bond, which was approved by more than 57 percent of Forsyth County voters last year, stipulates that the county invest $28 million in either a new or substantially renovated central public library and $6 million each on libraries in Clemmons and Kernersville.

The Forsyth commission’s decision to either include or exclude the library bond from its list of capital improvements for the coming year hinges on where commissioners set the county’s debt service limit, County Manager Dudley Watts said.

The county’s informal policy of limiting debt service to 10 percent of annually budgeted funds was exceeded in 2006 when Forsyth voters approved a $275 million school bond, and again in 2008, when voters approved a $65 million bond for Forsyth Tech.

“Those two bonds combined are more than half of the county’s current debt,” Watts said.

After the two bond issues, the Forsyth commission raised property tax rates to offset debt expenses. The commission issued a 3-cent tax increase in 2006 and a 1.1-cent tax increase in 2008. In the past seven years, the Commission hasn’t raised taxes for operating expenses, but only imposed tax increases to help offset the county’s debt service expenses, Watts said. The county’s current debt service represents approximately 13 percent of the county’s overall budget.

If commissioners decide to keep the debt service limit at 13 percent of the overall budget, one or more major capital improvement projects would have to be put off for at least a year.

“One project that could be moved around is the library,” Watts said. During the May 19 budget workshop, Paul Fulton, the county’s chief financial officer, recommended the county adopt a policy that limits debt service to 15 to 18 percent of annually budgeted funds. Watts said if the commission adopts a 15 percent debt service limit, it would not adversely affect the county’s triple-A bond rating and it would allow the county to issue $40 million in bonds for the construction of a new central library.

Gayle Anderson, president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, campaigned for approval of the library bond last year. She expressed hope the commission would issue the library bonds as soon as the county can financially do so.

“I think all of the commissioners understand the voters approved the bond but there is a question about the level of debt the county can assume; there are philosophical differences over that,” Anderson said.

Commissioner Everette Witherspoon said he supports Fulton’s recommendation of raising the county’s debt service limit to between 15 and 18 percent of the annual budget and going forward with the library bond in the coming fiscal year.

“We have no concern when it comes to debt because we’re one of the most well managed counties [in the state],” Witherspoon said. “We have low tax rates; we have a lot of room for growth.”

Forsyth’s current property tax rate of 67.4 cents per $100 valuation is the second lowest among urban counties in North Carolina. Wake County’s tax rate of 53.4 cents is the lowest among metropolitan counties, while Guilford County’s rate stands at 73.74 cents and Mecklenburg County’s sits at 83.87 cents per $100 valuation.

In her presentation, county Budget Director Ronda Tatum unveiled the recommended appropriation for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to be $111.5 million, which is roughly $4 million less than the school system requested. Watts said despite the fact the proposed budget is $813,000 less than last year’s allocation — if you exclude the one-time $2.7 million appropriation for the current fiscal year — it funds the construction of two new schools and underwrites some operating costs.

Theo Helm, a spokesman for the school system, said the school board has set a goal of making a total of $28 million in cuts, but that number will have to be adjusted on the level of cuts at the state and county level.

During its May 10, meeting the school board approved $23.8 million in budget cuts. The budget cuts translate to the loss of 260 positions,  including 112 teaching positions. Other positions cut include central office positions, assistant principals, media coordinators, counselors, and homeschool coordinators.

Kerry Crutchfield, the school system’s budget director, said if the county could meet the school system’s request of $115.5 million, it would save teacher jobs.

“If the county funds at the level of the county manager’s recommendations, additional positions will be cut,” Crutchfield said.

Watts defended the local schools budget as “generous,” noting that the proposed budget doesn’t claw back local supplement monies for teaching positions that are cut by the school system.

Amber Baker, principal of Kimberley Park Elementary, said the direct impact of budget cuts on local schools could be witnessed during staff meetings last week. Baker said she told Kimberley Park’s part-time teachers to prepare for not having a job after the current school year ends. The school system’s proposal to eliminate 3 rd grade teacher assistants and home-school coordinators didn’t impact Kimberley Park due to previous budget cuts.

Baker said she’s most concerned about draconian cuts to Smart Start and More at Four proposed by state lawmakers. Under the proposed budget by Republican legislators, parents at Kimberley Park will have to pay for pre-kindergarten programs.

“It will definitely create a hardship,” Baker said. The proposed county budget cuts 21 jobs from the Forsyth County Environmental Affairs Department, which would save the county more than $270,000 annually. Watts said the cuts do not amount to an elimination of the department, but a downsizing. Witherspoon, along with Commissioners Walter Marshall and Bill Whiteheart expressed concerns about cuts to the agency.

“We can’t depend on the state to clean up our environment,” Marshall said.

Watts said the Environmental Affairs Department works under a memo of understanding with the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources to do permitting the state would otherwise perform.

Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the local agency does much more than just regulate air emissions from industry that doesn’t exist anymore, and potential cuts represent a threat to public health.

“They have a much larger role in collecting data and protecting public health and that information is used at the state level for issuance of permits,” Naujoks said. “If you don’t have data, how do you measure the impact of pollution on public health?” Naujoks said the county’s proposed downsizing of the environmental agency is part of a larger statewide and national trend.

“In 2002, we celebrated the 30 th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and the [Environmental Protection Agency] issued a memo that after 30 years of continually getting better, water quality had begun to degrade, and it’s been degrading ever since,” Naujoks said. “Quite often local public health departments test sewage treatment plants [even if] the state has the regulatory oversight. If there are violations from these sewage plants and industry, how are we going to know?” “Water quality is declining at a time when public officials feel like our environment is okay,” Naujoks continued. “The idea that all of a sudden we can cut these programs and hope our environment sustains itself; it’s just not realistic.”

Forsyth County’s budget for 2011-2012 fiscal year also includes an eight-hour furlough for county employees, which could save the county $357,000; a 50-percent reduction in pay for long-term employees, which could save the county $611,000; and the elimination of performance incentives, which could save the county more than $550,000.