Orange County manager Bonnie Hammersley’s $236.4 million recommended budget includes a 1.5 cent property tax increase, but commissioners could opt to implement a larger increase this year in hopes of eliminating increases in upcoming budgets.

Hammersley said Thursday that commissioners could implement the 1.5 cent increase to continue the path of incremental increases started last year. Or the board could vote to increase property taxes at a rate of 5.8 cents this year. That would immediately go into a reserve to pay for future debt service, Hammersley said. In the incremental model, after smaller adjustments, an increase of more than five cents is still projected in the fiscal year beginning in 2021 in order to finance the final draw on the $120 million school bond approved in 2016. But Hammersley said the incremental approach does allow for more flexibility if things change between now and that projected jump.

Nearly 50 percent of the General Fund Revenue in the recommended budget is proposed for schools – with a recommended per-pupil allocation of $4,340, a $175 increase over last year. Chapel Hill – Carrboro City School and Orange County Schools receive the same per-pupil spending from the county, while Chapel Hill – Carrboro Schools have an additional district tax.

The recommended per-pupil spending falls short of the requested amount from each school district. Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools had requested additional funding for parental leave. The county allocates the money to the school districts, which then have the authority to finalize how that money is spent.

A total of $260,000 for racial equity training is proposed for school staff from both districts, under the recommended budget.

The proposal includes a 2 percent pay raise for county employees and an increase in funding required by the state for employee retirement.

The solid waste management fee is proposed to increase by $10 to $142 in the recommended budget. Hammersley told reporters during a meeting before the budget was publicly presented that the hope was still to cap the fee at $148 next year, which is projected to serve as a self-funding department at that point without further allocations from the county’s general fund.

The recommended budget includes funding new positions, including two new Orange Public Transit drivers and an operations manager, five new sheriff’s deputies – the sheriff had requested 10 – a criminal justice resources attorney and a community paramedic. Hammersley is also proposing a new position of IT security officer in the wake of a virus attack that crippled the county’s computer system earlier this year.

Hammersley said one challenge in this year’s budget is that it is the first that the county is feeling the effect of losing the authority to charge impact fees on new developments to devote to school construction costs, which the General Assembly stripped away from the county. Several large developments are also projected to come onto the tax books in the coming years – including Carraway Village, Wegmans and other projects Hammersley said she hoped would be announced in the next six months – but it will still be years before the county is able to work with those new commercial tax dollars.

Public hearings and work sessions on the proposed budget are scheduled to be held over the next six weeks before commissioners could adopt the final budget on June 18.

You can view the recommended budget here.