Cabarrus to consider sales, property tax options

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 30, 2011

By Hugh Fisher
CONCORD ó Cabarrus County commissioners face the same difficult decision that their constituents are facing, and money is at the heart of it.
The county isnít broke ń far from it.
But looming federal and state budget cuts are going to squeeze schools and local agencies even more.
Whatís more, property values in Cabarrus will be reassessed for the 2013 budget year.
Because of the recession, county staff expect the total value of property in the county to drop by 9 percent.
That means that, even if taxes stay the same, about $10.1 million less will be coming in.
To keep revenues near current levels, commissioners have a difficult choice to consider.
They may ask voters to consider a 1/4-cent sales tax to help keep funds near current levels.
And they would have to raise property taxes to keep the same amount of money coming in after the revaluation.
The question is, how much will taxes go up?
No matter what happens with taxes, spending will almost certainly be frozen at or near current levels for several years.
Saturday afternoon, at the boardís annual planning retreat at Camp Spencer, Deputy County Manager Pam Dubois went over the current five-year financial plan.
School systems and county agencies use this plan to help make their own budgets.
To keep bringing in the same amount of revenue with the new sales tax, property taxes would increase from 63 cents per $100 of value up to 68.49 cents in 2013.
Without the sales tax, the rate would have to go up again to 71 cents in 2014.
The alternative would be deep cuts to services and staff, and Dubois said that thereís not much room left for cutting.
ěWeíre down to the nitty-gritty of whatís left to make adjustments to,î Dubois said.
Last year, the county cut positions and offered buyouts to longtime employees in an effort to reduce costs.
Even so, in recent years the county has had to build new schools, increase spending for the Cabarrus Health Alliance and hire new detention officers.
Dubois said that, if the 1/4-cent sales tax passes, the money would help pay for the schools that have already been built.
But the tax, which is permitted by the state if voters approve, has not been popular.
County Manager John Day said that voters have approved the tax in only 17 of North Carolinaís 100 counties.
The current budget plan doesnít reduce the funds schools are getting now. However, a planned $800,000 increase for next year may not happen unless money can be found elsewhere.
Dubois said that Cabarrus County has been fortunate.
ěWe are one of the very few counties that did not cut schools. We are one of the rare ones that gave more money to them last year,î she said.
Three new schools opened in Cabarrus County last year.
Members of the board donít care for any of the options on the table.
Commissioner Chris Measmer, who took office in December, said he doesnít think voters will approve the sales tax, no matter how much the money would help.
He said he wasnít in favor of holding a special election at an estimated cost of $100,000 when it seemed unlikely that the measure would pass.
Commissioner Larry Burrage, another new member of the board, also opposes tax increases.
ěI would rather see a sales tax than a property tax,î Burrage said. ěBut I donít want either one.î
Commissioner Bob Carruth said that a sales tax would at least help bring in revenue from tourists and others who visit the area.
Vice Chairman Liz Poole said that schools are already bracing for deep budget cuts from the state.
Chairman Jay White said he was not comfortable with the thought of cutting libraries, law enforcement or other essential county services.
ěWe are not in a fluff position in this county, in terms of what were providing. Weíre a bit better than bare bones, but we are not fat and happy,î White said.
Day advised the board that several things need to happen soon if changes to the budget are being contemplated.
For one thing, school systems and agencies are starting to make their 2012 budgets now, he said.
ěItís really not fair to them to wait,î Day said.
And Day said itís impossible to know the full impact of funding changes on schools because the state has yet to make its own budget decisions.
Commissioners did not take a formal vote on this matter at the retreat.
But they agreed that Dubois and county staff would prepare different scenarios.
Between now and their next meeting on February 7, theyíll look at the effects of spending freezes and possible sales tax and property tax increases in different combinations.
Commissioners also asked to see a list of discretionary services ń those that arenít required by the state or federal governments.
ěThe frustrating thing that we have to recognize is that the decision we make today is different than the decision we make later,î White said.
White said he fears that Cabarrus County will be ěnickel and dimedî with additional requests for services that Raleigh canít afford.
ěBecause, the idea is that weíre a wealthy county,î White said.
No matter what happens, commissioners said they plan to communicate with residents so they know what the options are.
ěPeople are going to have a fit,î Burrage said.
ěI donít want to see a tax increase the four years Iím on the board, if I can help it,î he said.
And Poole said she doesnít want to hurt schools.
ěI think this group needs more information than it has right now,î she said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editorís desk at 704-797-4244.