Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Commissioners sticking their necks out for what in effect will be a 2-cent increase in the Rowan County property tax rate are showing courage. A flat rate might fit election slogans better, but it would also handicap the county’s ability to improve education, deal with growth, bring in more jobs and move forward.
Just look at the cuts suggested to keep the budget revenue-neutral, the most costly of which was cutting the increase to the schools and leaving the county short of the state average in per-pupil expenditures. Now there’s a way to send a message when the system is pushing hard to overcome problems with No Child Left Behind. The schools asked for a $5.77 million increase. The tentative budget commissioners OK’d last week grants $2.5 million of that, just $400,000 more than what the system needs to maintain the status quo and open Shive Elementary. That doesn’t leave much room for proposed improvements such as increasing teacher supplements (a huge need when it comes to recruiting and keeping high-caliber educators), creating an alternative middle school, revamping the alternative high school and hiring literacy coaches for middle school. Yet Commissioner Tina Hall, a former principal, recommended only a $1.6 million increase, and Commissioner Jim Sides supported her.
Sides and Hall also agreed on eliminating or reducing the $400,000 merit pay pool, eliminating more than $100,000 in new funds for the Rescue Squad, cutting $25,000 from the Rowan Jobs Initiative and $89,000 from the Economic Development Commission.
Fortunately, no one else agreed to those cuts. Other commissioners are looking at a bigger picture than next year’s property tax bill. They’re also looking at strategies to increase the tax base, which could eventually relieve pressure on property taxes in a more productive way. That involves recruiting industry ó a task made all the harder if you don’t have a top-notch school system to tout, nor fully funded economic development programs to tout them. Rowan-Salisbury has good schools, but it has to get out from under the No Child Left Behind cloud that moved in when the state announced the system would be receiving a visit from an assistance team, one of only a handful of systems in the state to be faced with that intervention. It was a wake-up call ó to most people. Sides and Hall may consider the $2.5 million increase extravagant and unnecessary, but it’s modest considering the schools’ needs and the pressure to improve ó too modest.
The budget remains tentative until commissioners hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on June 11 and a final vote. That’s time enough for citizens to let commissioners know how they feel about the budget, via phone, e-mail or at the hearing itself. With Kannapolis rising from the ashes, the interstate opening up and growth steadily increasing, this is a pivotal period in Rowan’s history. A low tax rate is important, but it takes much more than that to move a county forward in this economic climate.