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Pasquotank plan cuts ECPPS' request

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pasquotank County commissioners tentatively agreed to next year's county budget on Monday, balancing the roughly $44 million spending plan in part by trimming more than $700,000 from Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools' funding request.

Commissioners agreed on spending for the school system's operating expenses, which must be paid in a single fiscal year, and its capital projects, which can be financed over years to be more manageable.

The county’s plan includes $11.23 million for operating expenses, about $70,000 more than the $11.16 million commissioners approved this year, but about $730,000 less than the $11.96 million that ECPPS officials said they needed to maintain current services.

In capital projects, commissioners agreed to finance $2.6 million of about $3.9 million school officials asked for to repair and improve facilities. They left it to school officials to decide on specific projects.

It's likely much of the money would go to replacing the nearly 30-year-old, undersized heating and cooling system at Northside Elementary School. School officials have reported they're working to keep that project under $2 million.

By comparison, commissioners agreed to $1.3 million in school capital projects this fiscal year.

How well ECPPS will get by with reduced funding is unclear. Superintendent Larry Cartner told commissioners the state is forcing ECPPS to spend $265,000 more on pay and benefits. His budget presentation also shows ECPPS is asking about $100,000 more for information technology than budgeted this year.

Cartner also reported that charter school payments are driving up ECPPS's expenses as well. ECPPS is expecting to pay $575,000 to three different charter schools in 2018-19, according to an email from school spokeswoman Tammy Sawyer earlier this month. That's $120,000 more than the payments were this year.

The 2018-19 budget commissioners tentatively agreed to Monday also provides for a $500 raise for each county employee's yearly pay, plus increased health insurance costs. It also covers two new positions for Emergency Medical Services, plus one new and one rebuilt ambulance.

EMS Director Jerry Newell reported calls and patient transports continue to rise, necessitating the new positions. The EMS budget for 2018-19 would rise from $4.2 million to $4.5 million, based on county figures. The county would finance about $330,000 for the ambulances, plus the cost of radios and other equipment.

In other significant expenses, the tentative budget would also increase funding for the Pasquotank Sheriff's Department by $116,000. It would also finance $235,000 for five new sheriff's vehicles.

The budget would also increase the Pasquotank Department of Social Services’ budget by $162,000. DSS Director Melissa Stokely detailed Monday that she's seeking another position to help implement a new phase of a state benefits system, NCFAST, that's faced constant technical problems and frustrated staff and clients alike.

In reaching a consensus on next year's budget, commissioners followed the lead of Commissioner Lloyd Griffin, who during a discussion of fire department budgets asked County Manager Sparty Hammett what the county's overall shortfall was.

Commissioner Jeff Dixon argued commissioners needed to go line-by-line through each budget before considering the shortfall — so they know where to cut, he said — but Griffin insisted on the number.

Hammett responded the county was about $150,000 short of its projected expenses. Griffin noted that shortfall could be covered by a 1-cent property tax increase, but Dixon rejected doing so. He said he could not vote to raise taxes after voters approved an additional quarter-cent sales tax levy this month. That levy is not expected to take effect until October, generating only about $600,000 for the current fiscal year, county staff estimate.

That led Griffin to suggest reducing ECPPS' operating expense and only financing $2.6 million in capital projects. The $2.6 million includes the $600,000 in revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax.

The budget also calls for no increase in water and sewer rates or landfill fees.

Commissioners will need to finalize and approve the budget before July 1, which is when the spending plan will take effect.

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