County board augments tax increase in new budget
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
The Pitt County Board of Commissioners adopted a 3.5-cent tax increase with its new budget to fund a portion of a teacher pay supplement, a cause that brought about 100 people to Monday’s board meeting.
The 6-3 vote to adopt the budget came after the commissioners called a recess nearly two hours into their board meeting, after one vote on a budget proposal that included partial funding for the teacher supplement failed and a motion to adopt a second budget proposal was withdrawn.
Commissioner Ann Huggins had made a motion to adopt the proposed $251 million budget with a slight modification, reducing a 2.75-cent tax increase requested by Eastern Pines Fire District to 2 cents. Commissioner Tom Coulson had said in previous meetings he would oppose the budget if the 2.75-cent fire district tax was included because he didn’t believe the fire department had significantly explained it to the public.
While Coulson talked, Huggins spoke briefly with new Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and then with Commissioner Melvin McLawhorn, a Democrat. Huggins asked County Manager Scott Elliott what would happen if the commissioners wanted a budget with no tax increase.
“We would be looking at laying off a good number of people,” Elliott said.
The 3.3-cent tax increase is expected to generate $3.8 million in new revenues. It was proposed to fund mandated increases in county employee retirement and health insurance funds and increases requested by the sheriff’s office, school system, social services and Pitt Community College.
Elliott said eliminating positions, some that are already vacant but some currently staffed, would be required. Coulson said he didn’t think staffing cuts would be needed because Elliott does not intermediately fill vacant positions, so unspent budget dollars could be spent instead of fund balance dollars.
At one point Commissioner Beth Ward, the board chairwoman, asked the audience “Are you going to take a contract on us if we vote no?” Several audience members said no but one man loudly said, “Yes!”
Huggins withdrew her motion and the board took a break. Huggins, White, Fitzpatrick and McLawhorn clustered together and started talking. When questioned if they should be holding a discussion audience members could not hear, Fitzpatrick walked away. Ward then approached Huggins, White and McLawhorn. When again questioned about holding a discussion the audience couldn’t hear, the group broke up.
A short time later Ward, Huggins and McLawhorn were behind the commissioners’ desk, talking with Elliott and County Attorney Janis Gallagher while Fitzpatrick and Commissioner Lauren White sat nearby. Ward then spoke with Commissioners Alex Albright, Christopher Nunnelly and Mary Perkins-Williams before talking with Coulson.
The commissioners reconvened their meeting more than 20 minutes after the break began.
Huggins made a motion to adopt the 2019-20 budget with a 3.5-cent tax increase, with two-tenths of a cent added to the school system budget. She stopped short of saying the two-tenths would fund the teacher pay supplement because earlier in the meeting Coulson said it would be a bad precedent for the commissioners to specify how the school board spends the money. The Eastern Pines tax increase also remained at 2.75-cents.
Huggins, McLawhorn, Ward, Albright, Perkins-Williams and Nunnally, all Democrats, voted for the budget and 3.5-cent tax increase. White, Fitzpatrick and Coulson voted against it.
Through the discussion and earlier votes audience members applauded speakers and then use their mobile phones to photograph the vote tallies that appeared on screens facing the audience.
When the budget passed, the audience was quiet. Several individuals were observed typing on their phones.
“You understand what passed,” Ward said. As the audience began to clap, Ward said, “I didn’t hear a clap, I just wanted to make sure.”
The 0.2-cent increase was proposed by Nunnally and Albright as a compromise to request that would have increased supplemental teacher pay to 7 percent. Currently beginning teachers receive a 3.5 percent supplement and teachers with more than five years experience receive a 5 percent supplement.
The 0.2-cent increase will generate about $260,000 in additional revenue, Elliott said. If the Pitt County Board of Education adds $260,000 to that amount, the teacher pay supplement could be raised to 6 percent starting in January.
Elliott said funding a 6 percent pay supplement for an entire school year will cost about $1.1 million so the school system would need an additional $860,000. The county funds 257 teacher, clerical, maintenance and information technology positions, Elliott said. He said the Board of Education could divert money from positions that are unfilled to fund the additional $860,000.