Back to the drawing board?

As the county races towards a June 30 deadline to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year, county commissioners are questioning the need for, or amount of, a tax increase to balance the budget.

“A tax increase is something I don’t want to do,” said Commissioner James Booth at a budget work session on Friday. “I am looking at different things we can do.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Commissioner Jimmy Walker said he was ready to make a motion to approve a five cent tax increase and Board Chair Ronda Jones said she was considering the possibility of a four cent increase. County Manager Rick Morris has presented a budget proposal which calls for a six cents tax increase.

“Nobody wants to raise taxes or pay them either, myself included,” said Jones. “But we have to do what we have to do to pay our bills. At some point the tipping point is going to occur where we cannot fix things fast enough to run our county. I don’t want to leave the next board in worse shape just because we want to kick the can down the road.”

“We have gone 20 years with a very low tax rate,” agreed Walker. “We have stretched that further than we possibly could have. We have been battling a tax increase for years and offsetting it with fund balance. There comes a time where we have to say this is the way it is and we have to make and adjustment.”

But Commissioner Ernest Lankford said he felt there were still areas in the proposed budget where cuts could be made to save the county money instead of raising taxes.

“There are a lot of things that could be changed in this budget that could tighten our belt a little bit,” he said. “I feel like a lot of work needs to be done before anyone can make a motion to raise taxes. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Walker responded that he put faith in the county manager and department heads as they developed the budget.

“If we cannot put confidence in our manager and staff that work for this county and meet the needs of the county every day then we might be in trouble anyway,” he said.

“You really have to look at it from a standpoint that most of it is just pure wants, they are not necessities,” replied Lankford. “I have a lot of problems with this budget. I think there are some ways to make things happen that we don’t have to go up such a tremendous amount on taxes.”

Jones said her main “wants” were for the county to succeed it the future.

“I don’t want a tax increase,” she said. “But I do want our county to be fiscally sound. I want to protect our 20 percent fund balance. I want to protect police, health and emergency services. I want to deal with the turnover rate. I want to prepare for the economic development challenges. I want what is best for the county and that is the bottom line. It comes with a price.”

Booth argued that a six cent tax increase coupled with a 1.5 cent fire tax increase would equate to about a 12 percent increase in taxes next year.

“That is not a small thing,” he said. “We have an older population on a fixed income. They are just barely getting by now.”

Commissioner Leon Inman said he was not ready to vote for or against a tax increase.

“From what I am hearing it sounds like we need to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “We all want to do the best for the citizens of this county. We need to take the personalities out of it and make a business decision. Let’s get down to business and quit wasting taxpayer’s money. We are spending about $1,000 of the tax payer’s money for each of these meetings. We have all the facts. We have the county manager’s recommendation. We can take all of it or none of it. Lets go through this budget line item by line item. If there are things we can cut out, let’s hear them and see the specifics.”

Morris said his proposed budget did not include any “wants.”

“They are all needs based on our collective assessment with the department heads,” he said. “What I have given you is the base line requirement to operate this place at a minimally acceptable level. It is up to you on how to fund it. It needs this amount to operate this county like it is supposed to be operated.”

Inman also suggested looking at how much the county could pull from its fund balance in the next two years to minimized the amount taxes would have to be raised.

“Whatever we decide to do, I hope we do not make a decision that cuts our nose off to spite our face,” added Jones. “I hope we do not put our county at financial risk.”

The commissioners have additional budget work sessions scheduled on June 18 and June 19.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

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