Come Dec. 6, with the swearing in of recently elected Phil Matthews (R) the Wake County Board of Commissioners will get to work with a 4-3 Republican majority. The likelihood of a voter referendum to fund public transportation, filling the abysmal void of state and federal budget shortfalls, abortions, unions and support for the school board are where party differences will begin to shake themselves out in the county commission’s board room.
With all three Republicans up for re-election last week, Wake County Democrats were hoping that backlash over the Board of Education’s decision to end the diversity policy would catapult an even stronger liberal majority onto the board. They got a nasty shock when Democrats from the county commission to the House of Representatives lost their majorities.
Republican Tony Gurley celebrates his victory Nov. 2 at the NC GOP party at the Marriot in downtown Raleigh. Photo by Charles C. Duncan Pardo.
Current board chair Tony Gurley (R) is feeling the frustration of the people and has an aggressive list for the first meeting of the new majority. “We’re going to correct the mistakes of the past two years,” he said.
Funding abortions has been part of Wake County employees’ health care plans since the late 90′s. Gurley says that the board will probably overturn that at its first meeting. But, he says that he will support coverage for abortions “in cases of rape and incest and where the mother’s health is in question.”
Both Gurley and Commissioner Joe Bryan (R) say that next on the chopping block will be a resolution, which was passed by the former majority, supporting the unionization of county employees. It will be followed by the withdrawal of a resolution which condemned the Board of Education’s neighborhood schools policy as an act of re-segregation, Gurley said.
One of the most controversial issues in this year’s race for County Commission was a proposed referendum on increasing the sales tax by a half-cent to fund public transportation. Bryan and Gurley have said they will support the referendum, but only when a “fiscally responsible” and “fully vetted” plan is complete, leaving it unclear as to when the time will be right. Matthews on the other has said that at this time he doesn’t see a need for light rail or commuter rail service.
The final plan, which could provide expanded bus service as early as 2013, light rail as early as 2020 and standard commuter rail even sooner, is scheduled to be presented to the commissioners in March 2011. Durham and Orange County, which are incorporated in the expanded transit plan, also have to approve the sales tax. However, if any one of the counties approves the tax, the plan can move forward in that particular county.
“Polling for public support would have to be completed and appear favorable before we present this referendum to the people,” said Bryan.
“You only get one shot at something like this. It takes a few years to recover from a defeated bond or referendum,” Gurley added.
WakeUp Wake County, a civic action group which supports the sales tax, recently released a poll which says that 58 percent of Wake, Durham and Orange County residents support the sales tax increase.
Currently there is state cap of 100 on charter schools, which receive the same state and county funding per pupil as regular public schools but pay for their own building and facility costs in return for not having to follow what Gurley calls “the onerous regulations” of the state curriculum. Ten charter schools are allotted to Wake County and the new majority hopes to get the ball rolling on removing the cap at the county level, if not the state.
Gurley also wants to reintroduce a proposal which will require the school board to submit its budget to the commissioners based on “purpose and function.” The measure passed under a previous Republican majority but was repealed by elected Democrats before it was completely enacted.
Right now, the Board of Education asks for a given amount and the county commission writes a monthly check. Under Gurley’s plan the school board would divide the money into over a dozen categories and would then need to spend within 25 percent more or less of the allotted amount. He says he has “spoken to school board chairman Ron Margiotta, who agrees with the plan.”
Gurley also has a plan for the county commissioners to take the burden of site selection and construction of new schools from the Board of Education.
“We are used to anywhere from $30 million to $50 million in new revenues a year in Wake County and we just aren’t going to have that,” said Bryan. “We are looking at an economic shortfall on the state and national level. There are going to be hard cuts.”
Commissioner Stan Norwalk, a Democrat, said that dealing with the budget was going to be an equally big problem for Republicans or Democrats.
However, Norwalk added, “The new majority won’t raise taxes, even though the county has huge needs. It’s going to result in a loss of services and maybe a loss of teachers. The money for education may be down as much as $120 million.”
In the past Wake County has been able to supplement state budget shortfalls with county revenue. But without federal stimulus money, bridging the shortfalls could require deep cuts.
Ready or not, the new Republican majority, as Matthews has said, is about to “tighten its belt the same way ordinary people are doing” and that means deciding exactly which services are most important to Wake County.