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Commissioners approve 1-cent tax hike for 3 fire departments

By Jessie Burchette
jburchette@salisburypost.com
County commissioners heard the public at three fire department hearings last week and voted to give the departments a 1-cent tax hike.
And commissioners approved the combined 2009 budget Monday night keeping the county-wide tax rate at 59.5 cents per $100 valuation. The overall income and spending will top $140 million in the coming year.
While commissioners voted unanimously to approve the 1-cent tax hike for the Locke, Bostian Heights and Franklin fire departments, approval of the general fund budget came on a split vote.
Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell and Commissioner Jon Barber formed the majority to approve the budget.
Commissioners Tina Hall and Jim Sides voted against the general fund budget, which includes the money for schools, county employees and operations of all county departments.
Hall repeated her concerns about the economy and the need to cut back on spending. She noted that many of the county residents are struggling to make ends meet. She said it’s the wrong time to be using $8 million in county savings and urged the board to show restraint.
County officials have said that while $8 million in fund balance is included in the budget, they don’t expect to spend it. About 6 percent of the annual budget typically remains unspent.
Sides noted he had tried to cut the tax rate by 1 cent.
He noted his earlier opposition to increasing the fire district taxes, but he cited overwhelming support at the three public hearings held last week. “It’s the right thing to do and the right time,” said Sides, adding he doesn’t want to see 25 fire departments seeking a tax increase next year.
Barber expressed concerns about whether the county is looking to the future and preparing for the long-term needs. “We’re not forward-looking enough,” said Barber, adding that the focus is too much on trying to reduce spending or operations.
Mitchell and Chamberlain praised fellow commissioners for their work on the budget and discussion.
Chamberlain said the budget deliberations have been the most enjoyable that he has participated in since 1998 when he was elected. “It worked well … we had real discussions, that’s when you make the best decisions.”
He also praised the county staff, including Finance Director Leslie Heidrick, who did the bulk of the budget preparation while serving as interim county manager.
During a public comment session at the outset of the meeting, the chiefs of the three fire departments ó Rusty Alexander of Locke, Mike Zimmerman of Bostian Heights and John Thomason of Franklin ó thanked commissioners for attending the hearings last week and also urged the board to approve the tax hikes.

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