Economic development, and how the county funds it, were a central sticking point during the Stokes County Board of Commissioner’s first budget work session for the next fiscal budget.
The board, with Commissioner Ronda Jones not present, generally agreed that they would try to avoid a tax increase this year, that the county would try to continue to fully cover insurance premiums for county employees, and that the county should not allow it’s fund balance to drop below 20 percent.
But Commissioner Jimmy Walker found himself at odds with Commissioners Ernest Lankford and James Booth over a proposal to reclassify and fill a non-appropriated position in the department.
Walker argued that the county needed to invest in promoting tourism, saying that would be best way the county could encourage job growth.
“I really do believe we are doing an adequate job on promoting tourism,” said Lankford. “I don’t see any additional spending we need to do on tourism. We are adequately doing it as far as what potential we got.”
Both Lankford and Booth said they did not believe state estimates of how much money tourism brought into the county.
“I love tourism,” said Booth. “But there is only so much tax return you will get on tourism. I would like to see what the county is actually doing in sales tax and how it is increasing our sales tax. I would like to have the information before justifying using more of our fund balance we worked so hard to build up.”
Walker said that in talking to county residents while running for the re-election he had heard that economic development and tourism were the top priority form voters.
“They want jobs,” he said. “What is the use to educate our kids and give them a good quality education if they can’t find jobs in the county.
“The economic development proposal is the minimum of what we should be doing,” he added. “It is already a compromise. Really we need to be doing more than this. I guarantee you that this is an important issue with our citizens. they want to see this county moving forward. If we do not find a way to increase the revenue then we are headed for more taxes.”
“I agree that we need more jobs, but nobody has explained to me how we are going to get more jobs,” replied Lankford.
Walker suggested the board have a special meeting to discuss the issue, offering to bring in a variety of county residents to discuss the issue.
“I will have a meeting anytime you want to,” said Lankford. “I don’t want private citizens to talk to me in a meeting. It is just going to be talk. Send them to talk to me privately.”
Walker also suggested comparing Stokes County to how much surrounding counties spent on tourism and economic development and the return they had gotten.
“You can’t compare because we don’t have the infrastructure,” said Lankford.
Booth said the state estimates of tourism’s impact in the county did match up with sales tax receipts, which showed more sales taxes coming in January than in peak tourist seasons in August and October.
Fire tax also debated
Last year the county Fire Commission requested a 1.5 cent fire tax increase, but the board decided to increase it only 0.5 cents, with an understanding that it would increase it an additional 0.5 cents each year for the next two years to eventually get to the 1.5 cents originally requested.
But on Monday Lankford said he was not sure if he could support any increase to the fire tax this year.
“I thought it was your recommendation that we give them a half cent each year,” said Walker.
“I did not say which three years,” replied Lankford.
County Manager Rick Morris said he felt the the fire departments may need more than a half cent tax increase.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.