Guilford County Government graphic (copy)

GREENSBORO — John and Jane Doe get their turn to play budget maestros Thursday evening and tell Guilford County officials a thing or two about high finance.

The Board of Commissioners has scheduled a public hearing Thursday night on the $627.4 million, recommended budget for fiscal year 2019-20 that County Manager Marty Lawing submitted last month.

In his budget message, Lawing described his recommendation as a cautious spending plan for a local economy that is strong, but not going great guns.

"The challenges associated with meeting our service demands continue to grow, as does the pressure on the limited revenue options for county governments," Lawing said.

Growth in revenues from the county's property tax of 73.05 cents per $100 of ownership has been positive, but "not as strong as needed to keep pace with operating cost increases and capital needs," Lawing said.

His proposal calls for no increase in the tax rate.

If the board's past budget deliberations are prologue, much of the dialogue will involve Guilford County Schools and whether next year's proposed spending plan provides the system with sufficient money.

Commissioners say they want to hear what people think about the spending plan that would allot more than $312 million to the schools and Guilford Technical Community College; nearly $119 million to such human needs as public health, social services and veterans aid; and about $115 million for public safety including law enforcement and emergency services.

But speakers who take the floor in Thursday's hearing will need to be economical in their choice of words; the board's agenda allots just two minutes at the podium per speaker.

The public hearing is a required step after the county manager's initial submission. Next, commissioners will hold work sessions to put their final stamp on a document they tentatively plan to adopt June 20.

Commissioner Kay Cashion said that she believes Lawing's proposal is not far off the mark.

"The manager's budget is pretty close to where I think we're going to end up," said Cashion, a Democrat.

Republicans and Democrats on the board agree the schools need more money to tackle a backlog of maintenance, outdated buildings and other structural shortcomings.

But the majority doesn't want to raise property taxes to do it, opting instead to provide long-term financing through a countywide referendum after county and school officials develop a comprehensive plan.

Such a referendum could include bond financing or a small increase in the sales tax earmarked in full or part for the schools, said Republican board Chairman Alan Branson.

"I think the best way to pay for that is a sales tax increase," Branson said, citing a quarter-cent hike as a potential amount. "That way everybody gets to help pay for the schools, not just the businesses and other property owners."

But Democrat commissioner Melvin "Skip" Alston said the schools have immediate needs that he wants to address with a 1-cent increase in the property tax.

"One cent of property tax people wouldn't even feel," Alston said. "It's like buying a candy bar, but it would do a lot for our children."

Raising the property tax by a penny would bring roughly $5.5 million in added revenue to county coffers, all of which might be earmarked for school uses, Alston said.

That could almost close the $6 million gap next year between the $12 million in capital spending Guilford school leaders sought in the county's new budget and the $6.1 million included in the manager's recommendation, he said.

His fellow Democrat Cashion said that "there might be some additional flexibility" in county finances beyond what Lawing has proposed.

But she said the county has "a lot on the plate right now" with such projects as a major EMS building under construction, and a new animal shelter and law enforcement center in the works.

"Obviously, we would love to do more," Cashion said, "but we have a lot of things that must be considered."

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Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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