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New county budget raises tax rate

By Karissa Minn
kminn@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Commissioners kept a 2.75-cent tax rate increase and restored some nonprofit funding when they adopted the county’s fiscal year 2011-12 budget Monday. The budget increases the property tax rate from 59.5 cents to 62.25 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners decided to vote on the budget ordinances while discussing them during a workshop rather than at the regular meeting afterward.
After deciding May 4 to cut county funding entirely to the Rowan Arts Council, Rowan Museum Inc. and the Salisbury-Rowan Human Relations Council, commissioners voted Monday to reduce their funding only by 10 percent.
Commissioner Jim Sides moved to zero-fund the Human Relations Council, which passed in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Raymond Coltrain and Jon Barber opposed.
Chairman Chad Mitchell then moved to set aside $3,150 — 10 percent less than last year’s $3,500 appropriation — to be earmarked for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday breakfast. The motion passed unanimously.
“The Martin Luther King activities are put on by the Human Relations Council,” Coltrain said. “I don’t see why removing their funding, and then funding one part of an event that’s completely organized … by that group of people, would be necessary.”
Commissioners also lowered their previously considered reduction to the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce from 36.5 percent to 10 percent.
After these changes, the county will cut its funding by 10 percent to nine of the 16 groups to which the county gives special appropriations. Six cannot be reduced due to county commitments.
The remaining group, the Rowan Rescue Squad, was originally also going to be cut 10 percent, but commissioners voted 3-2 for a 3 percent reduction instead. Sides and Ford opposed the change, supporting the larger decrease.
School system cuts
At the beginning of the meeting, County Manager Gary Page said he recommended that county cut $2 million from its departments and a bit more than $1 million from the schools.
The departments actually cut about $2.5 million, he said, and the county reduced other expenses as well. Including the reduction in school funding, that equates to a recommended budget of about $125 million that spends about $4 million less than last year.
Barber said the county has prepared well for making tough decisions in the down economy.
“The proposed budget, along with the three previous years’ budgets … has reduced the size of Rowan County government since 2009 by 8 percent, or $11 million,” he said.
The board voted 3-2 to take the county manager’s recommendation to cut Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ funding by $1 million, also reducing appropriations to Kannapolis City Schools by $47,000 and to charter schools by $10,000.
Coltrain, who approved the decision, said the county soon may have even tougher decisions to make. He said schools have been cutting expenses for the past few years and expect to have state funding reduced by $6 million this year.
With $7 million available in its fund balance and $4 million in expected federal stimulus money, the system would be $1 million in debt if the state cuts them by the same amount again, Coltrain said.
Dissenting were Sides and Commissioner Carl Ford, who supported doubling the reduction to $2 million.
“I’m sorry the state continues to take money from the schools, but I do not feel we have any responsibility to fill the hole that the state creates,” Sides said. “They’ve not made the same cuts the county has made over the last three years.”
Ford said he’s just asking the school system and everyone else to help the county get through this budget year. He said the county is required to keep a fund balance, while the school system is not.
Salary questions
Later in the meeting, Barber asked County Manager Gary Page to acknowledge a salary increase for Sheriff Kevin Auten included in the budget.
Page said Auten’s salary will be increased to $90,000, which is similar to the heads of other local departments.
“That is part of this budget, so you don’t have to take a vote on it,” he said.
Sides didn’t wait for Page to finish his sentence before moving approval of the sheriff’s salary. Barber seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
Coltrain then made a motion that commissioners accept a 10 percent decrease in their own salaries.
He said it’s not a lot of money — the board makes $63,482 combined, so this would represent a decrease of $6,348.20 — but the principle is important.
“The increase in health care costs for our employees is somewhere around 10 percent,” Coltrain said. “This will show we are willing to bite the bullet with the rest of the county employees.”
Barber seconded the motion, but it failed 2-3.
Ford said the last two or three times county employees have gotten cost of living increases, the commissioners have not in about 10 years.
Mitchell said he would support Coltrain’s motion if he would change it to add that commissioners will receive cost of living increases when county employees do. Coltrain declined.
At the board’s regular meeting, Tina Hall spoke during the public comment period.
“If a commissioner has to miss meetings, although it’s not formalized with a vote, that commissioner could volunteer (that part of) their salary back to Rowan County,” Hall said.
Barber had missed the previous two meetings while attending an inpatient rehabilitation program.
Fire district taxes
During the workshop, the board turned its attention last to the property tax rates for county volunteer fire departments.
Mitchell asked County Finance Director Leslie Heidrick how many of the proposed rates were at or below revenue neutral.
“They are all at revenue neutral or less,” Heidrick said.
Sides said the following 10 fire district boards requested a tax rate increase: Atwell, Bostian, Cleveland, Franklin, Liberty, Locke, Miller, Pooletown, South Salisbury and West Rowan. Four of the proposed rates are revenue neutral, and the rest are below.
With additional surplus money received from tax collections each year, Sides said, only two of those districts would see a real decrease in funding — Locke and West Rowan.
The general fund and fire district fund each were approved by a 3-2 vote with Ford and Sides dissenting, saying they did not support raising taxes.
The county raised the property tax rate by 2.5 cents to reach revenue neutral after the 2011 revaluation. Property owners collectively would pay the same amount, but individuals might see their bills increase, decrease or stay the same.
An additional quarter-cent property tax increase would pay for debt from a $12 million bond for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The risk management fund, landfill fund and airport fund were approved unanimously.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

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