Mayors, county commissioners hope they can ‘hold the line’ on tax rates
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Old norm: Property tax revenues would increase enough each year to cover growth needs for city and county governments. New norm: Don’t count on the old norm.
Speaking at a Mayors’ Roundtable discussion this morning, Rowan County Commissioner Chad Mitchell said the new reality for most local governments is dealing with a property tax base that will inch forward only slightly each year.
The real growth in revenues, Mitchell said, will have to come from sales taxes, and local governments will have to become the innovators in delivering services to their constituents.
“The old status quo isn’t going to work anymore,” Mitchell said, adding that “groups like this” are where the innovations start.
Mitchell and fellow County Commissioners Jon Barber and Jim Sides were guests this morning at the mayors’ meeting, which is held roughly three times a year. The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce serves as host for the mayors.
Chamber representative Greg Edds said the mayors’ meeting usually is a “safe haven” for freewheeling discussion, but the media attended this morning because a quorum of commissioners (three of the board’s five members) were in attendance.
Only four mayors showed up — East Spencer’s Barbara Mallett, Rockwell’s Beau Taylor, Salisbury’s Paul Woodson and China Grove’s Don Bringle.
East Spencer Town Administrator Macon C. Sammons Jr. also sat in, as did Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris.
Mitchell made his remarks about revenues as both county and municipal officials are going headlong into their budget seasons, preparing budgets for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“Ours is going to be tight,” Barber said.
The commissioners in the room Friday seemed to agree, however, that the Rowan County property tax rate would remain the same.
“I think we’ll hold the line,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell credited commissioners over recent years with having eaten or absorbed 6 to 8 cents per $100 valuation of voter-approved tax increases. That has amounted to about $8 million commissioners have found in other places to avoid tax increases, Mitchell said.
Taylor, Rockwell’s mayor, wanted to know whether commissioners were considering a tax rate increase. He and the other mayors all described the challenges of paying for equipment and services in the face of stagnant revenues.
Bringle said he was encouraged the county was going to more of a retail model in trying to recruit businesses to its industrial park off Julian Road and Interstate 85.
Too many retail dollars continue to go south into Cabarrus County, Bringle said.
Woodson agreed the revenue stream for local governments changed substantially since the economic downturn. The city’s property tax base used to grow 4 to 6 percent a year, Woodson said, and that allowed the city to address most of its needs.
That growth hasn’t been there since 2007, he noted, making all the sales tax issues and discussions going on in Raleigh even that more important.
Woodson sounded a positive note. He said city officials seem to be fielding more calls from prospective businesses, while builders are talking about constructing new homes again.
“I’m seeing a lot of optimism in the city,” Woodson said. “... By 2018, I really think we’re going to be booming.”
One gripe Woodson expressed was how North Carolina finds it hard to compete for large industries when states such as Alabama and Mississippi offer huge incentives to recruit those companies.
Woodson predicted smaller businesses with 25 to 50 employees were Salisbury’s future, and Mitchell sounded a similar note.
While N.C. cities and states once looked to land the big-box industries in the 1980s and 1990s, Mitchell said, the future here will be in smaller business startups, possibly through a business incubator, and seeing those businesses expand.
A key to East Spencer’s future, according to Mallett and Sammons, will be the Interstate 85 interchange at Exit 79. But because of East Spencer’s small tax base, any development will take collaborations, they said.
“Some of these things will happen only with partnerships,” Sammons said. “We are very small. Our success is dependent on working well with partners.”
East Spencer also is working on housing redevelopment through a Community Development Block Grant. Sammons said he hopes the grant will allow East Spencer to improve up to 20 homes, including five substantial rehabilitations.
Before the morning meeting adjourned, Sammons said East Spencer was interested in what will happen with the current Rowan-Salisbury Schools administration building on North Long Street and the Dunbar Center building on South Long Street.
But there were no other comments on those buildings during the open session.
Here are some other notes from the meeting:
• An open house for China Grove’s new Town Hall and fire station will be held July 14. The 32nd Farmers Day in China Grove will be held July 20.
• Rockwell recently bought the American Legion building on U.S. 52, and Taylor said it could eventually be a meeting place for up to 175 people. The town is tackling its renovation in two phases and hopes it can eventually use it as the town’s voting location, too.
• Barber said the overall health of Rowan County citizens continues to move in the wrong direction, according to the latest rankings, and leaders in the county should ask what can be done to address it. He personally thinks it should start with child nutrition.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.