National economy hits Wake County

WAKE COUNTY Cooke said sales tax revenues are falling below projections. Monies gathered from recording fees for things like home deeds and automobile registrations are short as well.

In all, Cooke estimates the county will come up $17 million short of its $984 million budget, or about 1.7% short.

"It's not a huge number, but it's a number that has to be managed throughout the year," Cooke said.

To do so, Cooke says the county will go on the hiring freeze immediately and will eliminate travel that wasn't already planned. Cooke is also asking department heads to look at their budgets in the hopes they can revise them downward. At this point, Cooke doesn't anticipate having to lay off county employees.

"There certainly is anxiety when you start talking about needing to reduce money in a budget," Cooke said at a meeting of Wake County Commissioners Monday afternoon. "We're trying to get out in front of this as opposed to reacting to it when it's too late."

Cooke also gave commissioners a brief update on the county's plans to borrow money in the short term so as not to totally stall all planned projects.

The county had planned to issue roughly $454 million in new bonds. The county will now borrow $300 million instead. Bank of America will be buying those bonds; the deal is set to close next week. The resulting $154 million shortfall will affect several projects across the county.

The biggest loser will be the Wake County School System. Cooke says the system will probably be about $110 million short of what it had hoped to spend on school construction. The Wake County School Board will meet tomorrow and will discuss what projects to delay.

School board members urged the public to understand that while projects may be slowed down, they will not be stopped. Patti Head, chairwoman of the board's Facilities Committee, said that any delayed projects will indeed be completed. It's just a matter of when that will happen.

Meanwhile, Raleigh leaders are coping with the financial situation as well. They concede they may have to delay the construction of the new public safety center, which is to house the city's police and fire departments. Money is being allocated to finish designing the building, but for now, that's it.

"We may have to put that project on hold," City Manager Russell Allen said Monday. "We're not committing to construction. We're only committing to design."

Raleigh is in a "soft hiring freeze", according to Mayor Charles Meeker.

"It doesn't affect public safety, fire, police or sanitation," Meeker said. "But it does affect other positions, and we're being very careful about hiring and just keeping an eye on things so we'll have a cushion if things do turn bad next year."

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