A couple of weeks ago, Alamance-Burlington Board of Education member Brian Feeley made this observation on his political Facebook page:
One penny. A one-cent raise to the property tax rate will avoid forced school budget cuts at a time when our county is growing. Someone I respect recently joked that “political leadership” is an oxymoron. Well call me naive, but I still expect it from our elected officials and I know our community deserves it. It’s time to lead; our future prosperity demands it.”
The question about leadership is a fascinating one. How is such a thing defined? Do true leaders, and I’m talking about on every level, simply follow the dictum of their supporters, go with the majority or take an analytical look at a situation and determine a course of action that is both visionary and sensible — something that fits a time, place and list of priorities? Do true leaders play it safe or take well calculated risks to reach goals? Is the idea to maintain the status quo or to achieve something more, perhaps even touch greatness?
Interesting. I think we can eliminate the idea that great leaders thoughtlessly do the same stuff over and over again even when those things aren’t succeeding or worse, failing. I also think we can scuttle the notion that great leaders thoughtlessly jump at any new thing that moves as if it’s a magic salve that will immediately heal the wounds of a community. It’s true that spending money without the guidance of common sense is a deep journey into a deep dark hole. The opposite comes with its own warning about the perils of being pennywise and pound foolish.
Alamance County’s elected leaders have taken the lesser course more often than not over the last two decades. The results are obvious — a struggling local economy, less than spectacular student performance, violent crime and poor overall physical and mental health. Alamance County doesn’t have much to show for today’s era but a low tax rate. The community wasn’t like this when I lived here the first time in the 1980s. Achievement mattered back then. Alamance County competed for things.
The proposed county budget for 2018-19 will be discussed by the Board of Commissioners on Monday (June 18) and will likely go to a vote. It’s a lean budget in more prosperous times following the great recession that began in 2007 and continued for the next six-plus years. The economy didn’t really start to show real signs of recovery until at least 2014. As proposed the budget will mean shortfalls for two key education, cultural, communication and job-related programs — schools and the Alamance County Public Libraries.
Both deserve support. For the libraries a key issue is county help for a fledgling bookmobile program that will bring multiple services into rural parts of the county, including Internet access. The proposed county budget eliminates funding for bookmobile drivers and cuts library funding below last year, according to the Friends of the Library President Jeff Tudor. The bookmobile cut is particularly cruel. The Friends of the Library worked overtime to raise private funding to pay for most of the program. Internet access helps people find jobs and connectivity to the world. It’s needed.
As for the Alamance-Burlington School System, I’ll offer something Feeley, a colleague at Elon University, posted on Facebook prior to the June 4 public hearing, a contentious affair in which some commissioners exhibited pretty thin skin when it came to accepting public criticism of their voting records. Hey, if you can’t take it, stop running for office.
Anyway, Feeley’s social media plea defines the situation ABSS faces pretty well — in words much better than I can summon. Here goes:
That pretty much sizes up what’s at stake for ABSS as the county vote looms. The two-hour public hearing on June 4 determined what anyone who’s paid much attention at all already knew beforehand. Two commissioners (Eddie Boswell and Bob Byrd) are interested in at least talking about raising taxes a cent or more in order to maintain current operations for the school system. Three commissioners (Amy Galey, Tim Sutton and Bill Lashley) aren’t interested in doing so. Lashley, in fact, expressed the bizarre opinion that any tax increase would force senior citizens in Alamance County to begin consuming dog food in order to survive.
It’s the kind of hyperbole that has created the political climate we endure throughout the nation today. The planet isn’t the only climate that’s warming. The political weather is hot and stormy with a 100 percent chance of hell. The last thing isn’t a typo. Let’s just hope it isn’t the size of flaming bowling balls.
Speaking of politics I’ll put this right here: The Board of Commissioners is comprised of four Republicans and one Democrat — although one Republican used to be a Democrat. they are divided along those lines. The ABSS board is non-partisan but is a mixture of Republicans and Democrats who all support more education funding in the county budget. So common sense can trump — no pun intended — partisan loyalty.
The county manager has recommended a budget that keeps the 58-cent property tax rate for 2018-19. ABSS requested nearly $46 million. The county manager’s recommended budget would give ABSS a little more than $42 million, $655,000 more than a year ago but still not enough to cover state mandates such as retirement. One of the stated reasons for this austerity is the upcoming Nov. 6 vote on $189.6 million bond vote to pay for a new high school and renovations at other schools. In the county’s estimation if the bond are approved it will lead to a quarter-cent sales tax increase and at least a 2-cent property tax increase. Commissioners set a potential tax increase at hopefully no more than 7.88-cents but the situation is complex. Galey told me “7.88 cents is an estimate not a commitment. The tax increase to pay for the bonds could be higher. It depends on the interest rates at the time the bonds are issued. There’s no “cap.” Also, the lowest rate on the table of about two cents requires special permission of the Local Government Commission and may be a long shot. It’s a very complex situation.”
For her part Galey, a Republican, has pointed out that passing the bond is the ultimate goal and a tax increase now might jeopardize the vote in November. That’s a fair point and one I’m willing to concede has some merit, perhaps a lot of merit. I believe the bond vote is the most significant in this community’s recent history. And I have no doubt she’s hearing a ton of static from members of her party about holding the line on taxes. But her reasoning is also an excuse to mollify her base of support. With no bond vote on the line a year ago, she also voted against more school funding. This thing about the commissioners edging the budget a half a cent above revenue neutral following a property valuation isn’t much to hang a sign on as support for anything in the county. On the plus side, both Galey and Sutton seem willing to support the bond vote, a welcome sight. For his part, Lashley has stated he will not support it.
Byrd, the only Democrat, has called the proposed budget irresponsible. In a Times-News story published earlier this month he added, “It’s based on maintaining an arbitrary and artificially low tax rate.” He may be overstating the case by using the word irresponsible. But the tax rate is among the lowest in the state and seems to be set that way merely as a point of bragging pride for Sutton and Lashley, not the betterment of the county itself. In fact, I laughed when I read Sutton’s response in support of the county manager, stating, “If you have a county manager who says this is what you need to run a county, then it’s not artificial,” Sutton said.
I seriously doubt that would be his response had the manager suggested a two-cent tax increase. In fact, I know it wouldn’t. Mebane City Manager David Cheek, a former county manager, would probably back me up.
Anyway, Feeley says the budget as proposed would force the school system to cut $1 million from existing operations and leave zilch for strategic planning. Right now I think ensuring there are no cuts is the highest priority. After all, we don’t want to take steps backward. The strategic plan took a hit in last year’s county vote anyway. Three is no way the majority on the board would support parts of the strategic plan with a bond vote ahead.
Feeley also points out that “Alamance County’s property tax rate remains well below the state average. A one cent increase in the property tax rate from .58 to .59 would generate the necessary revenue to cover the continuation costs, avoiding school budget cuts. For a $200,000 home that equates to $20 a year for the taxpayer. A three cent increase would fully fund the budget request costing that same homeowner $60 a year.”
That’s the tipping point for any decision on Monday — a vote that I suspect is already a foregone conclusion anyway.
Sutton, like the media he enjoys jousting with, always wants to compare Alamance County spending and services to other counties of similar size. We used to do it at the newspaper all the time, too. It’s not a useless exercise and can be helpful in framing a debate. Tim concedes in a story by the Times-News that while Alamance County spends slightly less on public schools than the state average, it compares favorably to a group of 11 counties with similar sized school systems. Alamance ranks fourth among the 11. I figure the 11 include Sutton’s favorite choices for comparisons — Davidson, Randolph and Rowan counties.
Galey places no stock in such comparisons and Sutton too much. The truth is somewhere else. While comparisons to similar-sized counties have merit, it misses a few important factors: First and foremost is overall competition for industries or corporations. Because of our location we compete head to head with Guilford, Orange, Durham and Wake counties. Our services don’t necessarily have to match theirs but it shouldn’t be a canyon-sized difference. Businesses are looking for communities that are interested in growth, services and education. Education is particularly important to executives when they consider the kind of environment they want for the children of their employees or in hiring a work force.
And more importantly we live in an evolving global society where our children compete with the world for jobs and placement in colleges or universities. They don’t just compete with kids from Randolph, Davidson or Rowan counties. When we hand them diplomas has our community and education system provided them with the tools they need to not only compete in today’s society but win?
These are questions leaders should be asking themselves. If, you know, they really are leaders.