Wake County Commissioners are in the beginning stages of deciding whether to voters will see a referendum on the November ballot for bonds to pay for a Wake Technical Community College expansion plan — and whether that means a future tax increase to pay for county school improvements.
In a work session Monday, commissioners reviewed the county’s Capital Improvement Budget, which outlines spending on buildings for the seven years. During the review, county staff presented information about what would happen if the county took on debt to pay for Wake Tech’s $210.2 million building program.
Community college officials previously presented a six-part plan to commissioners, stressing the need for more room. Officials say they are turning students away from enrollment.
Nicole Kreiser, Wake County’s Debt and Capital Director, said the county could take on $200 million in debt through general obligation bonds, which must be approved by voters. The other $10.2 million would be paid for in cash.
She said the county has the capacity to take on the debt, because some other obligations will be paid off. But Wake County Schools are also in need of capital improvement funds. Estimating their need for $150 million next year (a low estimate, according to County Manager David Cooke), the county cannot manage the debt of both large projects without more money.
Doing both would require a 2.70 cent property tax increase, not next year, but in the 2014 fiscal year Kreiser said.
Wake County Schools officials are far from ready to present their construction plans, Cooke said. He doesn’t expect any such information until this fall or next spring.
That means Commissioners have options – and decisions to make in the next few months. They can move forward with Wake Tech and its plan, adding the referendum to this November’s ballot. Or, they can wait for a plan from Wake County Schools before deciding how to proceed.
He said the county has the capacity to get at $240 million without increasing taxes.
“We can give that to any need you want,” he said. “But we have one entity that has a plan on the table, that we’ve traditionally supported with bond referendums … So our question is do we wait until we have plans for everybody, or do we start moving pieces forward?”
Cooke said they could even exercise the option of levying a 0.25 cent sales tax, which also requires voter approval.
“This is all ‘What if,’” he said.
Commissioners wondered if they moved forward with Wake Tech’s plans and later asked voters to approve a tax increase for county schools, but voters did not approve it. Commissioners also wondered at the urgency in both situations.
“Which one carries the greater urgency?” asked Commissioner Joe Bryan. “And is there urgency to move forward or not move forward? What if you wait two years?”
Cooke said they can debate the urgency in the next few months. If they choose to add a referendum to the November ballot, they must approve that by July.
“All we’re saying is, there are more capital needs right now than money,” he said.
“All I’m looking for you to say, David, is that we can do all this without a tax increase,” Bryan said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
“I can’t say that,” Cooke said.
Commissioners will review the county operating budget at their meeting next Monday. A public hearing on the budget will take place June 4.