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County Council may transfer $1 million to schools


During a contentious work session last night, the Howar County Council indicated that it is likely to take $1 million from the noneducation portion of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed $289 million operating budget and give it to the school system.

The increase is still considerably less than that requested by the Board of Education. When the board amended its $149.5 million budget request and asked for an extra $5.4 million, including $4.4 million for salary increases, Mr. Ecker refused to fund it.

The council can restore what the executive cuts from the school board request, but to do so, it must make cuts in other areas or raise the tax rate.

The two Republicans on the five-member council agree with Mr. Ecker that it is unfair to increase education spending because that would give school system employees a salary increase twice as large as other county employees would get.

The school board has said it will cut $5.4 million in other programs rather than void the contract it had negotiated.

Mr. Ecker and the Republicans suggested that the council circumvent the issue by deciding which categories to cut rather than leaving the decision to the school board.

During last night's work session, two of three council Democrats said they are opposed to telling the school board how to spend its money.

The key straw vote at last night's work session was 2-2. But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who was in Arizona attending a National Association of Counties board of directors meeting, is expected to vote with Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, to restore some education funds by making cuts elsewhere in the proposed budget.

The school system should also benefit from a $2 million salary contingency fund that Mr. Ecker had set aside in his original budget proposal. The fund would be used to give employees a 3 percent raise Jan. 1 if 1993 income tax revenue is 10 percent higher than 1992 revenue.

Since the school system will be giving its employees a 2.5 percent raise June 30 and a 3 percent raise July 1 (the beginning of the new fiscal year), the $2 million it would receive in January could be used for other purposes.

The biggest casualties in the non-education portion of the budget were $655,00 for road resurfacing -- more than half of the $1.1 million originally proposed; $100,000 for data processing; a self-insurance fund of $200,000; and a radio maintenance fund of $100,000.

In a straw vote on the proposed capital budget, Ms. Pendergrass sided with Republicans Darrel Drown of the 2nd District and Charles C. Feaga of the 5th District to cut school construction funding by 10 percent for projects to be bid in later years.

Mr. Gray said in a telephone interview earlier yesterday that a 10 percent cut in school construction was especially unkind because it would affect two new schools in his district.

He said he had lobbied the state to fully fund projects in Ms. Pendergrass' district, yet new schools in his district are being cut back.

Mr. Farragut said that, like Mr. Gray, he thought the council should scrutinize the school construction budget, but in this instance, the 10 percent cut appeared to be arbitrary rather than the result of reasoned analysis.

The council is expected to approve a new budget May 20.

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