Dare commissioners adopt budgets

Published 2:18 pm Thursday, June 20, 2024

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On June 3, 2024, after a public hearing, Dare County commissioners adopted the county’s fiscal year 2025 operating budget at $136.17 million.

Three people spoke at the budget hearing: Dennis Zaenger, Aida Havel and Katie Morgan. All asked that the budget decision be delayed. The speakers are Democratic candidates for the Dare Board of Commissioners.

At issue is the long list of infrastructure projects listed in the capital improvement plan for the Dare County Board of Education and its decision to proceed with the Dare County Early College. That early college plan is to build a new building, currently estimated at $23 million, on the new campus of College of The Albemarle – Dare in Manteo.

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Dare’s commissioners were assured by school board Chairman David Twiddy and Dare Schools Superintendent Steve Basnight that early college was the first priority of the county’s school board. The early college construction is slated for fiscal year 2025 at $25 million.

As announced at the meeting, the extra $2 million is now reserved for a Manteo High School field house as well as additional expenses in excess of the estimated $23 million for early college.

The two-phase field house was originally promised in the school board’s budget in 2018. Several Manteo residents have spoken on other occasions about fulfilling that promise this year.

After public comment, county manager Robert L. Outten commented that the capital improvement budget was separate from the operating budget and was Item 15 on the day’s long agenda.

The unanimously adopted operating budget includes no property tax increase.

Of the General Fund budget, the largest expenditures are allocated to public safety, which includes the Dare County EMS Department, Dare County Sheriff’s Office and Dare County Emergency Management Department at $43.6 million, or 32%; education, which includes Dare County Schools and College of The Albemarle – Dare at $32 million, or 23.5%; human services at $19.9 million, or 14.6%; and general government at $16.8 million, or 12.3%.

Dare County employees receive a 4% cost of living pay adjustment for full-time and part-time benefits-eligible county employees. The 3% employer 401K contribution is maintained and the merit plan remains in place, but changes to a salary increase.

Dare County’s contribution to Dare County Schools for fiscal year 2025 is increased by $2.5 million to a total of $30.8 million. Included is $1.63 million for increased pay supplements for staff.

Now, the budget “conversation” was not over. The board’s agenda Item 15, titled “Recommended Capital Improvements Plan for the County, Dare County Schools, and the Water Fund,” was reached.

The plan as presented is for five years. “It’s redone every year,” said Outten. “It gets juggled and juggled annually.”

Outten reported that this year, funding was available to meet most of the requests and maintain the coverage ratio of “1.” That coverage ratio indicates enough savings to pay one year of debt service. Three requests were eliminated: a facilities maintenance bucket truck and blood analysis and ultrasound units for Emergency Management.

For all five years, capital improvements plans for the county total $88 million for 44 projects; for Dare County Schools $66.29 million for 30 projects; and $13.18 million for county water.

The county water fund, an enterprise operation, pays for capital projects through water rates, which next fiscal year increase by 5%.

School infrastructure and county projects that are $50,000 or less are funded through capital outlay funds.

Questioning started with Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert L. Woodard asking about air quality at a First Flight School.

Basnight said spring air quality testing at First Flight Middle School revealed elevated readings in three unconnected classrooms. The readings were for wood mold. No wood is in the construction of the building. Basnight cited several possibilities for the elevated readings, including plants in the rooms.

Another issue is a drain in the food preparation area of the cafeteria at Cape Hatteras Secondary School. Commissioner Bea Basnight asked the superintendent about the drain.

Basnight responded that trash gets in the drain. And the occurrence is “not frequently enough that I get a call.”

To respond to those critics that said they didn’t know about early college, the superintendent responded with a timeline that started in 2015, when Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies was named a “cooperative innovative high school,” which is what early college is.

The timeline continues with multiple meetings with parents, students and faculty advisory groups and several public meetings.

Dare County commissioners called a recess in the meeting to attend a 2 p.m., ribbon cutting at the new Station 7, the helicopter hanger and facilities for staff.

Upon return, the commissioners approved the three improvement plan budgets, with the caveat that when construction estimates for large projects move beyond placeholders on the plan calendars, those projects may be delayed.

In response to the conversation, Board of Education Chairman David Twiddy suggested a pause so the school board could convene to discuss the timeline for early college.

The Board of Education held a special meeting on Wednesday, June 5, 2024 starting at noon at the Dare County Schools Administration Building in Nags Head.