...continued from page 1
However, while the new commissioners say they understand they have little say in the details of school expenditures, they also say they know that controlling the purse strings carries a lot of weight. In addition to federal and state dollars, the Guilford County
school system relies heavily on funding from Guilford County
, and the Board of Commissioners determines how much in operating funds the county gives the county schools each year.
The Board of Commissioners over the years has met with school officials once in a while, and commissioners have occasionally complained about the cost of school administration or school construction. However, there's never been a real concerted effort for the Board of Commissioners to get involved in the operation of the school system and the construction of schools. That might change with the new Republican-led Board of Commissioners.
All three new Republican commissioners talked repeatedly about schools, school policy and school construction during their campaigns, and they say they're going to make school spending a point of emphasis in the years to come.
Phillips said it's critical for the Board of Commissioners to do whatever it can to help keep school spending in line.
"It's a high priority for me," Phillips said. "It's 43 percent of the total budget. That's a huge percentage of our overall budget."
"The first step is improving the relationship between the Board of Commissioners and the school board," he said. "I think it's interesting that, in the past at least, some commissioners have washed their hands when it came to school spending. They've said, 'That's the Board of Education and it's off our plate.'"
Phillips said he wants to see that attitude change.
"Our responsibility is to better understand how those dollars are being allocated once they're released to the schools," he said.
Henning has also had a lot to say about schools for a candidate in a county commissioner race.
"I want to open a dialogue with the schools," he said.
Henning said he wants to see the schools get what they need when it comes to new schools, but he added that the county doesn't need "upscale schools" when schools that meet basic educational needs will suffice.
He also said that making sure the bidding process is handled in the best way possible could help control the cost of school construction and maintenance contracts.
Henning said citizens are about to see a new era in Guilford County
government. He quoted Yogi Berra's famous quip: "When you come to a fork in the road – take it."
"Well, we've come to a fork in the road," Henning said.
The new board is likely to continue to hand out taxpayer money to rich companies in the form of economic incentives, but at least it sounds as though there will now be some scrutiny of those requests.
Under the Democrats, the board's de facto incentives policy has been to give out incentives to any company that requested them. However that may change. The new commissioners say they'll scrutinize each request, but they aren't against incentives as a rule.
"We defiantly need incentives just to play ball," Trapp said. "Everyone is doing it."
Trapp said that, during his time on the board, he wants to explore ways in which the county can encourage economic growth, and he said targeted incentives may be part of that plan.
Henning said on incentives, "I'm going to keep an open mind and decide it on a case by case basis."
On the campaign trail, Branson said he wanted to see state and federal legislation that would end economic incentives. That's not going to happen anytime soon, but Branson and his fellow new Republican commissioners say they plan to examine incentives requests carefully before handing over taxpayer money.
The new Republicans are unified against higher property taxes, but they are not of one mind when it comes to raising sales taxes.
Branson said the sales tax does have some appeal to him because it would take some of the tax burden off of property owners.
Henning, however, said, "At this point it's just a new tax." He added, "That would be a further burden."
It's estimated that a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase would raise from $12 million to $16 million – which is equal to what is raised by 3 or 4 cents on the property tax rate. So theoretically the county could lower property taxes by 3 or 4 cents and come out even. But even if that were to happen, and that is a big if, there is nothing to keep the commissioners from raising property tax rates the next year.
The increase would also need voter approval, and in Guilford County
the sales tax hike has already been voted down three times.
Phillips said that, to him, it made more sense to find $12 million to $16 million in wasteful spending and cut that, rather than raise the sales tax.
"That's the first order of business," Phillips said.
In past years, area arts organizations and other community nonprofits have had a very good run of getting county money in each budget, but that may change in future years.
The new Republicans all say there may be a place for that in better times, but right now funding needs should face strong scrutiny.
Henning said of the arts: "It's important, but it's not putting food on the table."
He said those initiatives look a lot more appealing for funding when the economy is better and the money is there.
Phillips also said that, in better economic times, the commissioners might have more money to fund the nonprofits, but right now the board is going to have to make some very tough choices.
Alston said the new starry-eyed commissioners will have their hands full. He said it's important to keep in mind that the Republican's 5-to-4 majority is the slimmest majority possible, and Alston said he knows from his 20 years on the board that type of majority doesn't mean one party will have a say over everything.
"That's a narrow margin," Alston said. "It's hard to get five votes out of five people – they're going to need to reach across the aisle and pull votes from both Republicans and Democrats. That's what's made my past four years as chairman a success."
Alston said it's easier to talk about cuts than to actually make them. He said even the most right-leaning commissioners have, for instance, plenty of arts supporters in their districts, and those people vote he said.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman – a Democrat who'll be serving on the board under a Republican majority for the first time since she joined the board in 2002 – said she isn't sure what to expect from the new Republican commissioners.
"I just don't know them," she said.
But Coleman said she will continue to make her presence known.
"Being in a minority on the board as a Democrat," she said, "I certainly don't intend to roll over and die."