CORRECTION APPENDED: Marilyn Grolitzer, not Marilyn Ross, spoke on behalf of the master gardener program.
Some implored. Some stated facts and figures. All asked for more money.
The Wake County Commission held a public hearing Monday for the proposed 2011-12 budget, which takes effect July 1.
The recommended $951.5 million Fiscal Year 2012 budget is only $300,000 more the current year’s spending plan. The proposal maintains the current property tax rate of 53.4 cents.
Most of the people who spoke at Monday’s public hearing requested fewer cuts to Health and Human Services programs. That portion of the budget was sliced by $14.4 million.
A member of CASA, which serves the housing needs of low-income residents, asked the commission to reconsider the cuts. Others who spoke from related agencies reiterated the point: these funds serve “those who need it most.”
Of course, the list of those who need it most has grown with the down economy.
“The story is the people who normally donate to us are coming to seek food,” said Earline Middleton, vice president of agency services and programs for the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina.
Each of the speakers acknowledged the “tough decisions” faced by commissioners during these economic times.
County Manager David Cooke, who draws up a budget proposal each year, said yes, flat revenues are requiring tough decisions. The county is sticking to its main focus of public services, he said, and holding to plans for a new jail and a new mental health center.
Two of Monday’s speakers asked for more money for Wake County Public Schools. About 3,400 new students will join Wake schools this fall, making it the 18th largest system in the country.
“Schools are really critical for the success of our county,” said Karen Rindge of Wake Up Wake County.
The county’s education funding will increase this year by $900,000. Cooke pointed out that education has not received any cuts.
“If you’re going to keep education the same … and the budget isn’t getting any bigger, that means you’ve got to cut other stuff,” he said.
Commission Chair Paul Coble said commissioners must manage a lot of priorities.
“It’s a hard thing to deal with,” he said. “The solution is a robust economy and growth.”
Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said with so many worthy causes to choose from “you just have to decide which is the worthiest.”
At the evening portion of the hearing, more than 30 people appeared on behalf of a Wake County agriculture agency position. According to the budget outline, both have been vacant for a year. The jobs have focused on Cooperative Extension’s farmer’s market and horticulture program.
The program offers education, speakers and seminars for free to residents, schools and youth camps. A phone bank operates five days a week to handle questions and certifies the county’s master gardeners. The program also teaches classes about gardening.
Local farmer Bob Kellerman said more people are using that service than ever.
“You don’t eat the seed corn,” he said. “I can’t help but feel that by eliminating this position you are doing just that.”
Program volunteers, who wore red shirts at the hearing, spent more than 10,000 hours of their time last year — the equivalent of five full-time employees, said Marilyn Grolitzer, who spoke on behalf of the position.
“No agent, no program,” she said.
Commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. June 13 for a budget work session. They are scheduled to approve the budget June 20.
In other business, the board approved new residential districts for the seven members. The map had not been redrawn since 1981. Since then, the county’s population has doubled, and the new lines aim to even out the number of residents in each district.
Because Wake County Commissioners are elected countywide, the change is not the same political hot potato handled by the Wake County Board of Education.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said County Attorney Scott Warren.
Still, the change was not approved without its own bit of drama. Ward requested a line moved to include a particular neighborhood near U.S. 1. The change was not approved; she was the lone vote against the new districts.
Ward argued she did not have enough input in the process, but Coble said everyone had plenty of time these past few weeks to suggest changes.
The change also draws Commissioner Tony Gurley’s residence out of his district, but does not negate his term as commissioner. One commissioner asked why Gurley’s district was drawn out.
“Because I plan on being Lieutenant Governor,” he joked, prompting laughter.