Commissioners set to maintain open-space capital

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 09:34 PM

After being offered up as a potential target for a budget cut, the county’s open-space and farmland-preservation program appears likely to receive the $500,000 it was originally counting on in fiscal 2014-15.

Commissioners agreed Thursday not to impose on a program a $100,000 cut suggested by County Manager Wendell Davis, proponents arguing the program has successfully leveraged grants and other funding over the years for land purchases.

“To the degree we can put money in while we can still get good deals, we should,” Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said, noting that it’s still a buyer’s market for real estate because land values haven’t quite recovered from the hit they took in the recession.

But the move required Reckhow and Commissioner Wendy Jacobs to support a request from commissioners Chairman Michael Page for about $55,000 to subsidize a staff hire at the Urban Ministries and an initiative to help “young men of color” escape poverty.

They needed Page’s support because Commissioner Brenda Howerton favored the $100,000 cut, and Commissioner Fred Foster said he wouldn’t discuss the matter until commissioners vote on the fiscal 2014-15 budget on June 23.

Howerton said she’s more concerned about the possibility the county may have to step in to fund teaching assistants or teacher salaries in the Durham Public Schools.

Uncertainty surrounds both those issues thanks to the ongoing N.C. General Assembly debate about the state’s fiscal 2014-15 budget. The N.C. Senate has proposed eliminating funding for teacher assistants.

But County Manager Wendell Davis said it’s unlikely state leaders will finish their budget before commissioners approve the county’s.

He did not elaborate, but the N.C. House was debating its draft budget bill on Thursday and it is certain to have enough differences from the Senate’s to require a three-way negotiation among the chambers and Gov. Pat McCrory.

Howerton wasn’t swayed. “We don’t know exactly how many dollars we’re going to need to support our children and our teachers,” she said. “This money would help to support them, and it’s not hurting anything else.”

Reckhow, however, noted that $100,000 wouldn’t go very far if the county has to backfill a state-imposed cut of teaching assistants.

The open-space capital is separate from a $77,175 matching-grant program the county maintains to subsidize small-scale park and trail projects. Davis had suggested eliminating it, but commissioners earlier this week agreed to its retention.

Commissioners use the capital program to cover part of the cost of major land buys and the purchase of farm-preservation easements.

The county’s money matches grants and appropriations from other sources. Since 2000, “we see that we have been able to get over $16 million worth of investment in property with us spending a little over $4 million,” Jacobs said.

She and other officials added that in normal practice, money accumulates in the open-space reserve until program manager Jane Korest completes negotiations and financing arrangements for a major buy.

The capital program lost some of its funding in fiscal 2008-09 when former County Manager Mike Ruffin, responding to the then-unfolding recession, raided several reserves to bolster the county’s operating accounts.

Korest said the program now has about $850,000 in reserve, with all of that allotted to pending buys. She thought it likely that the deals will eventually close under budget, potentially freeing up a couple hundred thousand dollars.

She added that she’ll operate the program with whatever amount the commissioners allot to it, but doesn’t “think it’s really healthy for [it] to only be running from one year to the next” financially speaking.

Davis suggested the $100,000 cut after commissioners in late May asked him to scale back his request for a 2.73-cent increase in the countywide property tax rate.

As of Wednesday, officials were planning on a 1.87 cent increase in the tax rate.