Wake County Found an Extra $3 Million. Who Decides How to Spend It—Commissioners or Bureaucrats? | Triangulator | Indy Week

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Wake County Found an Extra $3 Million. Who Decides How to Spend It—Commissioners or Bureaucrats?

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Three million bucks equals less than 1 percent of what Wake County gives its schools every year. Still, when county coffers took in that much more in property taxes this spring than expected, it started a row over county governance.

At the heart of the dispute: financial staffers decided to incorporate that money into the overall budget without consulting county commissioners. But some of those commissioners wanted that money diverted to the school system, which received significantly less from the county than it asked for this year.

First-term commissioner Greg Ford, a former high school principal, wants to know who calls the shots. 

"The point is, staff used discretion to allocate this funds in a way that I think that, because of the amount, should have been brought before the Board of Commissioners for action," Ford says. "What is an appropriate threshold of when elected officials should be notified?"

Commission chairman Sig Hutchison says the system of letting the county's financial staff make interim adjustments is working just fine, despite Ford's concern.

"I would say this is his first time, and this is the way it's always been done and the way it always will be done," Hutchison says. 

Commissioner Jessica Holmes responds: "That is true as long as there are a majority of votes to support that position, but the chair does not speak for me. We are both duly elected."

Commissioners Ford, Holmes, and Matt Calabria thought after a June meeting that as much as $5 million in additional funds might be directed to the schools. 

"Several commissioners, including me and including Commissioner Holmes, wanted to know from staff, did our budget projections for the year match the actual revenues and expenditures?" says Calabria, who eventually forged an agreement that brought the schools $5 million more than Wake County manager Jim Hartmann first proposed, upping the schools' new revenue from $16 million to $21 million. "We wanted to know what, if any, additional monies would be available to the school system."

Financial staffers said the property tax revenue went into a pot with all other revenues. However, they said, $1.5 million in sales taxes—again, more than projected—could go to the schools. Calabria accepted that explanation, but Holmes and Ford maintain that commissioners should have been able to weigh in on the other $3 million. 

Hutchison disagrees: "It wasn't that a decision was made; it was part of the normal budget process that we go through."

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