Wake Commissioners Restore Some Budget Funding

Wake County Commissioners Monday informally agreed to restore more than $600,000 in cuts in the county manager’s proposed budget.  The restored money is for three areas: community programs, the Board of Elections and a position for the county’s Cooperative Extension program.

Commissioners held a work session to hash out details of the $951 million budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Commissioners frequently referred to restored money for community programs as “soft landing,” or a transition to wean community organizations off county funding.

Commission Chair Paul Coble said these years of tight budgets mean it’s time for the county to restructure itself and revise spending. Just as the county is dealing with tough times and change, so will the non-profits, he said.

To pay for the restored cuts, County Manager David Cooke will request money from the Wake ABC Board. The board gave the county $3 million last year and offered between $400,000 and $500,000 this year. Cooke said he anticipates the board will fulfill this request.

Commissioners discussed whether they should accept the offer of money, suggesting they should wean themselves off money that will not be available next year, just as they are asking non-profits to do.

Cooke said that is exactly why such revenues were not included in his original proposal.

“I didn’t want to bring a budget that relied on one-time revenues,” he said.

Cooke called this request the county’s own version of a “soft landing.” He said because most of the restored money can be classified as one-time expenditures, he feels it is a fair move.

Although Commissioner Betty Lou Ward broached the idea of a property tax increase, commissioners barely considered the idea. A one-cent property tax increase would raise $11 million.

“That’s a tough sell,” Coble said, referring to the recession.

Cooke will check with ABC board members and provide commissioners with an update.

The commission is scheduled to approve the budget at its next meeting, June 20.

Community Programs
More than half the restored money will be allocated as part of Community Partnership grants, which were not funded in the original proposal.  The county issued more than $500,000 last year for such grants, also known as Aid to Community Agencies. The programs are all non-profit groups providing health, food and educational services to the needy.

County Manager David Cooke said the money given to those programs was intended to be one-time funding. But during the past few years, some agencies have received the money each year. They began factoring it into budgets, becoming dependent on the county.

“No one should have been building their budgets on this,” Coble said.

Cooke said most of the groups could compete for funding in other areas. He also observed that some of the groups receive other county funds. He referred to Haven House, which receives one-third of its budget from county sources.

Commissioner Joe Bryant said it makes sense to keep strong partnerships with groups who provide good services, but this “sends the message to look elsewhere for funding.”

Board of Elections
Commissioners also agreed to add back $83,000 to the Board of Elections budget. The proposed budget for the board is $3.4 million. Although an increase from the past two years, the proposal did not provide funds for redistricting costs, splitting precincts, a possible second primary, extra operating costs and money to convert temporary positions to permanent.

Commissioners said the $83,000 will pay to add two precincts and to convert temporary positions to permanent.

Board of Elections Secretary Aida Havel argued for the $325,188 needed to fund 12 precincts. She said the board delayed requesting money for 25 precincts last year because of budget cuts and is now asking for only part of those needed.

Of Wake County’s 198 precincts, 83 contain more than 3,000 people. Havel said they aim to have about 3,000 people per precinct to prevent long waits and parking issues. One of the biggest problems is Precinct 20-02, which contains more than 9,000 voters in the western part of the county around Cary and Morrisville.

Havel said in 19 months, the number of voters there has increased from 6,400 to more than 9,000. If the growth continues at even half that rate, she said, that number will reach more than 10,000 by the 2012 Presidential election.

With about 38 percent of voters showing up on Election Day, that means more than 4,000 people at the precinct. Spread out over the day evenly, which never happens, means 316 voters per hour. Long lines in 2008 forced precinct workers to call police for traffic control, and many voters left without voting, she said.

“I want everyone who wants to vote to be able to vote,” Havel said. “It’s vital that we keep ahead of the curve.”

Havel said splitting precincts now enables the board to prepare equipment and train workers with a smaller election this fall.

Coble said 12 precinct splits is too much to ask when commissioners are forced to choose between precincts and money for programs to vaccinate children and keep them out of jail.

“In a world where you aren’t going to get what you want, what’s your biggest problem?” he said. “You want us to make some tough decisions; you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. What’s your bottom line?”

Havel said the 12 were necessary; funding a few each year is inefficient. If only two were funded, the board would be back next year with the same request.

“I hate to kick the ball back to you, but we need the funding for 12,” she said.

She said the Board of Elections is mandated by statute to make such decisions.

“It is not the county manager’s responsibility to decide,” she said.

Once a precinct is created, it’s permanent and cannot be combined with another. Thus the creation of new precincts means more annual costs.

Board of Election members left before Coble suggested the $83,000 restoration of funds.

Wake Elections Director Cherie Poucher said she will inform board members, who will likely call a meeting to decide what to do.

Cooperative Extension
Finally, commissioners also agreed to fund about $22,000 needed to pay half the salary of a horticultural extension agent position at NC State University. NC State funds the other half of the job. The job is one of two such positions cut from the original budget proposal. Both positions have been vacant for more than one year.

NCSU officials have said if the county does not fund its half, the Cooperative Extension program would be cut completely. The program is linked to 4-H services, provides a phone line for gardening questions five days a week, offers gardening classes to the public and certifies master gardeners. More than 30 people wearing red shirts attended the public hearing on the budget to speak for the position’s benefits to the county.

“Seeing the sea of volunteers in red ... I think we would be making a terrible mistake by not filling this position,” Commissioner James West said.

jwig@raleighpublicrecord.org

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