DOBSON — A final budget workshop lagged on for hours as county commissioners opted what requests to fund and what not to fund in next year’s budget.
“I want to do everything we can for our schools,” noted Commissioner Larry Johnson at Thursday evening’s meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners.
Discussion focused on school spending, with Johnson and board Vice Chairman Eddie Harris advocating for schools spending over and above what was included in County Manager Chris Knopf’s budget.
School allocations — with the exception of the realm of special requests and projects — is placed into two categories, both of which are per-pupil allocations. Current expenses, or “ADM funding,” is a per-pupil allotment earmarked for no specific use. Capital outlay is the other regular per-student annual allotment from the county. That money is earmarked for capital projects, including security and technology improvements.
Knopf had provided a $10 increase to the current expense rate for all three schools systems, moving the rate from $1,090 per student to $1,100 per student. With about 11,500 students enrolled in the county’s three systems and charter schools, the result of such an increase is about $115,000.
Board Chairman Buck Golding explained he and Harris had met with Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves and county school board Chairman Earlie Coe after the two had seen Knopf’s recommended budget.
“We had a very frank conversation,” recounted Harris. “They recommended $1,175.”
“We have made drastic changes and across-the-board cuts in this county, and quite a lot of that was on the backs of schools.”
Harris noted the schools’ expense rate was $1,125 in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Harris said he would like to see the county take bigger steps toward funding the schools at the same level they have been funded in the past.
He asked the board to consider increasing the rate to $1,125 in the coming budget year, which begins in July. The cost of such a move would be about $283,000.
“Whatever we do we have to consider whether we can sustain it in years to come,” remarked Golding.
Commissioner Larry Phillips added his thoughts.
“This is a different county now. I don’t know that we can sustain that. … I don’t feel comfortable with it.”
Golding issued a simple ultimatum aimed at garnering his vote for increased schools funding. Those advocating for the increased funding had to find the money without increasing Knopf’s recommended $74.4 million budget, which is a 0.6-percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.
An answer was presented.
Knopf explained county staff had recently “found” about $700,000 leftover in a capital projects fund. Half of the money could be used to fund a project which will move the county’s 911 communications center from its current location in Dobson to the human services building in Mount Airy.
That change would free up general fund dollars which were to be used on the communications center. The remainder of the money would be placed in general and schools capital project funds.
“You didn’t find me any money,” said Golding. “We’re just trading pockets here.”
Phillips raised concerns regarding using the old capital money — a one-time “find” — to support expenses which will be recurring from year to year.
Harris argued the dollar figure for which he was asking was “very modest” and “not extraordinary.”
The board noted Knopf was already using fund balance to support the budget, about $4.4 million.
According to Finance Officer Sarah Bowen, the county has about $32 million in fund balance, $18.5 million of which is general fund balance and $2.8 million of which is unrestricted.
“I don’t think anything I’ve said we can’t afford,” said Harris. “We can always go up in fund balance.”
“How long is taking it from fund balance sustainable?” countered Golding.
Harris noted the county has been “shedding debt” and he has voted against major projects such as the sewer project in the Interstates Water and Sewer District.
“The things I’ve advocated for are small.”
Phillips floated a plan. Included in Knopf’s recommended budget is funding for four school resource officers at the county’s middle schools. The positions are currently funded by grant monies, which are sun-setting. The total expenditure for funding the resource officers is about $250,000.
Phillips plan was to cut the school resource officers line item out of the budget. Putting those dollars toward current expenses would raise that figure to $1,118 per pupil. An additional $22,000 from the old capital project fund could be used to increase the figure to $1,120.
However, some commissioners weren’t comfortable with removing the officers from the budget.
“We aren’t removing SROs (school resource officers) from the budget,” said Phillips. “We are just letting the schools make the decision. Do they need resource officers or something else.”
Phillips and Golding both noted past instances when schools systems opted to prioritize unnecessary expenses like baseball field lights over other needs, including safety.
“They lit the ball field,” said Golding of the Mount Airy City Schools.
“The school board members are elected officials, too,” said Phillips. “Let them make the decision.”
Golding said the schools will always ask for more gross money from the county, even if an enrollment decline is the cause for a reduction in overall funds.
Johnson advocated for funding the increase to current expenses and the SROs.
“The dollar amount here doesn’t bother me,” said Johnson. ” I have grandkids in the schools.”
“I’d like to put one (an SRO) in every corner and one at the flag pole with a machine gun,” said Commissioner Van Tucker. “At some point dollars has to be involved in our conversation.
“You can’t buy your way out of a tragedy.”
Johnson did say he had eliminated funds from other line items, suggesting the board strike $150,000 from Knopf’s allocation of nearly $1 million to the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport, $100,000 to the Northwest Regional Library system — about a third of the system’s allocation —and about $30,000 from Surry Community College’s budget.
“They can adjust like we have to adjust,” remarked Johnson.
In the end, the board opted to leave the funding for the two entities alone. It also chose to move forward with an increase in schools’ current expenses to $1,120, and deleting funding for two of the four SROs in Knopf’s recommended budget.
With those changes and other additions to the budget, using $300,000 from the capital projects fund which was “found,” the agreed upon budget comes out to slightly less in expenditures than what was included in Knopf’s recommended budget.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.