[Editor note: Union County Commissioner David Williams took time at the end of the July 19 meeting to address concerns from four speakers during the informal comments period. Each talked about the county's fiscal year budget.]
I just first want to acknowledge how important it is for anybody, and these folks especially, to come here today and engage on issues in the public arena. I think that's great.
But I'd also like to address some of the items they brought up because I think they're important in terms of the recent 1.7% property tax increase and where those funds went.
I'm one of the four that voted for it, and I don't have any regrets about that. I would still make the same decision today, and I consider myself a low tax conservative.
Let me just summarize where this went to.
The $3.6 million that was raised – all of it and then some – went primarily to our education partners – went to the Union County Public Schools about $5.5 million. Almost $400,000 to South Piedmont Community College.
So this is not a story of county government gone wild. This went to fund our education partners.
One of the speakers had mentioned that in terms of Union County Public Schools, they're top three in the state in terms of ranking but they are dead last – 116 out of a 116 county and municipal school systems – in terms of state per-pupil funding. When I found that, I nearly fell out of my chair, but our school board has done an admirable job doing a lot with less. I've become convinced that they needed the money.
Now when you look at opportunities for cutting funds and areas where you need to expend more funds. It's really pretty simple.
When you look at the county budget and you take out the enterprise fund, you take out water and sewer. What are the major items of expenditure? Well, number one, that just hit you in the head like a 2-by-4 is education. That's where most of our county dollars go. And that's where the need is.
Union County Public Schools spends $2,500 to $3,000 less than median school systems in the top 10 in the state. So they are doing a bang-up job in my view with managing the operation side of that budget.
What are other big items?
Public safety is the next big one. Well, to Sheriff (Eddie) Cathey's credit, back in 2020, Sheriff Cathey had some asks of the County Board of Commissioners and to his credit he waited on those. He deferred on those and then COVID happened. Fiscal year 2021 – what did Sheriff Cathey do to his credit? He deferred again. He said, 'You know what? I understand this is a difficult period. I'm going to wait yet again on these needs.
So what did we do in staring at fiscal year 2022 when things are looking a little more clear and Sheriff Cathey has waited nearly two years to fund some of these needs?
We went ahead and funded these needs. Was that a mistake? I don't think so.
So you move on right now in the list. What's another next big budget item?
I think it's probably number three – benefits. You've got post employee benefits, which is a substantial expenditure and you've got benefits from medical and dental. We know what's happening there to health care costs and health care premiums. What's the decision there? Do we just say, 'You know what, county employees? You eat all of that premium increase.” Is that our answer? Is that the responsible, the good thing to do? I don't think so.
You know, we had a holiday in terms of post employee benefit funding last year. That holiday made some sense. We were looking at COVID and so we delayed some of the funding of those very necessary contributions so we can meet our obligations to employees, post-employees, retired employees.
Well, this year, we caught up with some of that funding. I think that was an appropriate decision.
So you look at the big areas that the county funds and there were needs there that we had to meet. I think ultimately perspective matters too,
I hate tax increases. I loathe them. You know, before I was in this job – this is my first job ever as an elected official – I was an activist fighting for lower taxes. I still believe in lower taxes.
We compare pretty well by the way. You look at Gaston County. You look at Cabarrus County. You look at Mecklenburg County, We compare favorably to all of those. A couple of those counties are pretty conservative.