eastern healHerding Cats Between Rock &

I will not support a tax increase, Shaw said.

You still have to offer services, Coleman said.

Perkins said he wasnt an educator, but he said he didnt see what the big deal was with having a few extra students in each classroom. He said it was his impression that the learning experience in classrooms was more a function of teachers abilities than of the size of the classes.

Gibson also said hes been concerned about the ct that the state this year is clearly out to nickel and dime the county to death.

The skepticism over this years budget process began full tilt on Thursday, April 7, when Manager Brenda Jones Fox handed her proposed budget to the Board of Commissioners a budget that called for an astronomical 8.5 percent property tax increase.

There are 11 commissioners on the board, Perkins said, and, if five of those commissioners turn out to be out of the budget game entirely, Alston would have to find six votes from just six commissioners a daunting task, Perkins said, especially considering the number of complicated ctors at play.

Everyone else is taking cuts, Cashion said.

At this point, though, in these tough times, even some things that in the past have been considered sacred cows are starting to look like filet mignon to the commissioners.

Alston sent a memo to Sheriff BJ Barnes last week asking for details on all the detention officers Barnes wanted to hire. But Barnes said that, as long as its up in the air what detention cilities in the county will be closed and what ones will be open, he cant give a straight answer.

From a more practical perspective, however, virtually all of the commissioners have scheduled their summer vacations for early July, and, if the budget talks go past July 1, the final county budget might be passed with the majority of commissioners calling in their votes on the telephone.

Perkins said that he, like some other commissioners, might be able to vote for a tax increase. Perkins didnt want to say a number of what he considered an accepteastern healHerding Cats Between Rock &able tax increase but, when pressed, he was willing to say that something close to half of Foxs proposed increase might not be outside the bounds of reasonableness.

Commissioner Bill Bencini, a Republican wholl be voting on his first budget as a commissioner, said the notion of adopting a 6-cent increase is preposterous.

Other commissioners are also thumbing their noses at the notion of adopting any budget that remotely resembles Foxs proposal. Commissioner Linda Shaw, for instance, whos the vice chairman of the board and whos been a supporter of both Alston and Fox on several controversial issues this year, has said that, not only would she not vote for a 6.32-cent tax increase she wouldnt vote for any tax increase this year. When asked about her position on a potential tax increase in the 2011-2012 budget, Shaw was unequivocal.

Though the states deadline for counties to adopt a budget is June 30 each year, there have been times when counties have missed that deadline and nothing much bad seemed to happen.

Shaw said Fox had done a good job cutting costs in government over the last two years, but, Shaw added, there are still ways to cut more. Shaw said the county can be run effectively in 2011-2012 without a tax increase.

Perkins said that, if one examines the commissioners current positions one at a time, it doesnt look good for the chairman. He said Yow and Shaw arent going to vote for a tax increase, and, he said, he thinks it unlikely Bencini or Commissioner Mike Winstead would vote for a tax hike of any real size. In addition, Perkins added, Commissioner Paul Gibson could just refuse to vote yes on any budget deal that Alston tries to work out because Gibson and Alston are staunch political enemies.

Coleman said that she, for one, is going to take Foxs proposed budget and comb through it very carefully.

Coleman said the board is in a tough spot right now.

Perkins also said he thinks there are savings to be found in the school system, and, he said, perhaps the county shouldnt give the schools as much as Fox is recommending this year.

Davis also said that, while its important to do everything possible to keep property taxes down, he wants things like arts programs to be judged in terms of revenue those programs bring into the county. He said he feels some programs are revenue generators for and said that, in some cases, county funding of arts programs may be warranted.

Perkins said tensions between those commissioners who dont want a tax increase, those who dont want services cut and those who are playing a political game with the budget this year, make it very difficult on Alston when it comes to finding six votes to pass a budget.

This thing could go right to the end and even after, Perkin said of the adoption of a 2011-2012 budget.

Yow said theres only one way he would even think aeastern health boardbout adopting Foxs budget: if the board somehow managed to shave off at least 6.32 cents of Foxs proposed tax increase in other words, every bit of it.

Coleman said that, this year especially, the state has really walloped the counties when it comes to funding. She said the state has made its philosophy clear about finding money to fund county projects: If we dont have it, lets pass it on to the county.

Despite the divisiveness on the budget issues right now, one thing seems safe to say: Foxs budget is just about universally disliked.

I was highly disappointed in the proposed increase, Cashion said.

Cashion said she was taken aback when she saw it for the first time on April 7.

This year, the April 7 date of the managers proposal was the earliest any current county officials can remember getting the budget, and now they have all of May and June if they need it to wheel and deal over the details and hear from citizens.

It was only minutes after Alston sent his memo that Barnes shot back: Skip, we will be happy to comply with the request once you provide us with the scenario that the commissioners are going to choose. Without knowing which scenario of the three presented is picked it would be impossible to respond to your request for where the officers will be placed and how many there will be. If you can answer the question of which scenario you choose I will be happy to have staff get you the information, we will work it in with all the other requests from the managers office and budget, but we will probably not be able to have it to you by the deadline provided.

Were going to look at everything, Coleman said.

Commissioner Kay Cashion said 2.5 cents on the increase is the point where she starts to get very unhappy. She said shes willing to look everywhere she can in the budget for cuts to keep the tax rate down.

eastern healHerding Cats Between Rock &,Thats because hes the captain of the Board of Commissioners ship this year, and, while hes seen a lot during his two decades as a commissioner, he may never have seen a ship in a storm this bad, and one that was taking on so much water.

Like Cashion and Perkins, Davis said hes been looking into ways the schools could save money, and he added that hes already sent some questions he had to school officials about the way the schools are operating certain programs.

Commissioner Kirk Perkins said that, the way things are shaping up among the commissioners right now, he wouldnt be surprised if the board missed the June 30 deadline for adopting a budget.

For instance, according to Cashion, the schools shouldnt get an automatic pass from the Board of Commissioners. Foxs proposed budget holds the countys funding for the schools operating budget at last years level, $175 million, but, Cashion said, many county departments have really been taking it on the chin while the schools escape unscathed.

None of us want to see a large tax increase, she said.

This year, it doesnt take a math wiz or a political science expert to figure out that Alston has a mountain of work to do between now and midnight on the last day of June. From the moment commissioners first heard of Foxs proposal, many balked. Commissioner Billy Yows first reaction to Foxs proposed budget, in ct, was to request a recess so that he could step out of the commissioners meeting room and throw up.

But other commissioners have their concerns and there has been some talk of closing the High Point jail, but Davis, who represents High Point, doesnt want to see that happen.

Of course, everybodys lobbying, Davis said.

Other commissioners also want their own pet projects in their districts funded. However, as soon as money for political vors for commissioners starts going back into the budget, then the tax increase starts growing, and every time the proposed tax rate jumps past a certain point, some commissioners votes are likely to evaporate.

Theres a common perception among many county officials that the next county budget must have a tax increase to pay for the debt on new schools, a new jail and an expanded community college, as well as to pay to staff, heat, cool and run those cilities.

Despite all the turmoil, Alston said hes not worried. He said he has some ideas for ways to save the county money in the next fiscal year and its becoming clear that he sees the new jail as one place the county can find savings.

Coleman said some tax increase may be warranted this year.

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Perhaps at no time in recent history have so many disparate elements been at play and at odds in the budget process; it certainly makes for excitement in county government, if not for optimism.

Coleman said shes not against a tax increase if one is needed, but she said a 3-cent tax increase is something that she could live with 6-cents, however, she could not.

One thing the commissioners do have in their vor is that they started the budget process earlier than in previous years. Ten years ago, the Board of Commissioners didnt get the budget message from the manager until late May or early June, and the board then only had a few weeks to haggle.

Usually, if anyone even starts to mention raising class sizes by one or two students, school officials act as though that would mean Armageddon. However, Perkins isnt afraid to say he doesnt see why the sky would ll if class sizes were increased slightly and the county could save some money.

Cashion said one of the disturbing things about this years process was that it was this late in the process and the county was still in many respects completely in the dark as r as knowing what the state was going to do in regard to county funding.

The commissioners can use the extra time, but it may mean added aggravation for them as well, since it gives every group in the county that feels slighted by the proposed budget time to email, write and petition for their cause. On Thursday, May 5, the commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget but Davis said people arent waiting until then to speak their mind.

For instance, Perkins might be one of the votes for a budget with a tax increase, but he doesnt want the countys Prison Farm closed down however some other commissioners do. The rm is in Perkins district in eastern near Gibsonville, and Perkins said his constituents like having it there.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Skip Alston never lets people see him sweat under his expensive suits, however, going into the 2011-2012 budget adoption process, one has to think Alston is sweating up a storm.

Theyre some major changes there, Coleman said of the states funding policies.

Alston needs to pull together six votes to pass a county budget by the end of June, and a lot of commissioners and other county officials say they simply dont see how even an experienced politician like Alston will be able to do that this year.

However, especially in an economy when many citizens are already under great financial strain, even traditional tax-and-spend commissioners with very safe seats on the board dont want to be responsible for increasing property taxes to even greater heights.

After the commissioners took that proposed budget into their hands and Fox gave her presentation, Foxs number-crunching work on the fiscal 2011-2012 budget was done and Alstons political work was just beginning. Each year, the county budget is known as the chairmans budget because the chairman is seen as the one ultimately responsible for getting a budget passed.

Even liberal Democrats like Commissioner Bruce Davis say the 6.32-cent tax increase Fox proposed is completely unacceptable. When asked how much of a tax increase he would feel comfortable voting for, given the current challenges cing , Davis replied, under two cents.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman has been absent from commissioners meetings for the last two months due to her health, but shes been participating some by telephone, and she said shes better now and should be attending commissioners meetings once again.

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