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Planned half-cent tax hike for RCCC bond might not be needed

By Karissa Minn
kminn@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — County officials say they may not need to raise the property tax rate this year, even though a half-cent increase was planned for the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College bond.
At their planning retreat Wednesday for the 2012-13 budget, county commissioners said they don’t want to raise taxes this year. County Manager Gary Page said he might be able to make that work, as long as a few elements come together in the county’s favor.
“If the economy looks the same — if the stock market comes up and sales taxes come in better than we thought — then maybe I could do it,” Page said.
In a November 2010 referendum, voters approved a tax increase of 1.25 cents per $100 in assessed property value to pay for the bond debt. The Rowan County Board of Commissioners decided to stretch that out over three years.
The county raised the property tax rate by a quarter cent for the bond on July 1 of last year, and it planned to raise it an additional half cent in each of the next two fiscal years.
But some commissioners have asked to leave out the second rate hike.
The county is looking at a minimum of $1.7 million in new expenses in the coming year, Page said. That includes $600,000 in costs related to the new jail annex, $400,000 for a county employee bonus agreed upon by commissioners, and $700,000 for community college bond debt.
That money has to be made up in the budget somehow. One source of extra funding could come through property tax collections, Page said, because the county assessor’s office usually gives conservative estimates during revaluation.
Page said the county also could use revenue from the voter-approved quarter cent sales tax, if the money collected is more than the money needed for the jail annex and 911 communications project.
“We told the public … it would only go to the jail and 911,” he said. “But we also told them we’d raise the property tax rate by 1.25 cents if we passed the college bond. So if we’re going to stretch it on one, would you allow me to stretch it on the other?”
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain said commissioners should follow what they were told by county voters, not their personal wishes.
“I will definitely vote to increase taxes to cover the community college bond, because that’s what the people said they would pay,” Coltrain said.
But the rest of the board disagreed.
Commissioner Jim Sides said he doesn’t have a problem with using sales tax money to keep from raising the property tax, “and I don’t think there’s a taxpayer in Rowan County that would complain about that.”
Commissioner Jon Barber said voters gave their permission to the county to increase taxes by 1.25 cents per $100 of assessed value, but “if we can find a way not to, I’m sure they would appreciate it.”
Barber and Chairman Chad Mitchell both brought up a school bond referendum from 2002. Voters approved an increase of 6.7 cents, but the county only raised the rate by 2.3 cents, they said.
Page said the county could only do without a tax increase this year if he can make up that $1.7 million.
“Also, if we dodge a half cent this year, then come next year I may need the half cent,” Page said. “But if you told the public we’re going up 1.25 cents, and you only go up three-quarters of a cent, that still looks good to the taxpayers.”
Also at Wednesday’s work session:
• Page said the county may add several employees this year, but officials also will have to cut some positions to balance the budget.
• Commissioners agreed to try to give county employees a 1 percent to 1.5 percent bonus — but not a cost of living adjustment or permanent pay raise — along with some requested reclassifications.
• Telecommunications Director Rob Robinson requested $158,000 to fund four new telecommunicator positions. This would effectively give the county one more dispatcher over four shifts, Robinson said.
In addition, the request includes more than $131,000 to pay for the 10 telecommunicators the county would absorb from consolidating 911 operations with the city of Salisbury.
That figure is based on starting the transferred employees in February 2013. The cost for an entire year would be nearly $395,000.
When commissioners asked if all 14 new positions would be needed, Robinson said he’s not sure how consolidated staffing would work, but he’ll take whatever additional help he can get. Page said the county can look again at its needs once the transition is made.
• The board directed staff to look at options — and try to minimize the cost — for new software handle finance, payroll and human resources.
Leslie Heidrick, county finance director said members of the staff and the public could more easily access county records like payroll data, invoices and checks.
Heidrick estimated the new software would cost no more than $800,000 in the first year and about $83,000 each year afterward. The finance office now pays $40,000 to $50,000 a year to maintain its old software, she said, which was bought in 1995 and may not be supported much longer.
• A majority of commissioners said they were leaning toward rejecting Rowan Public Library’s request to open for a three-hour period on Sundays during the school year.
Library Director Jeff Hall wrote to the board that it would cost $40,000 to $45,000 in staffing costs, plus a “modest increase in utilities.” Coltrain said he suggested the idea to help students do their schoolwork, and Barber said he’d consider supporting it.
• The board said it won’t be able to fund both a third Salisbury ambulance at $477,000 and another West Rowan EMS station at $1.5 million, as requested by the emergency services department. But it agreed to try to find a solution that would help lower response times in Salisbury and better serve the western part of the county.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
Twitter: twitter.com/postcopolitics
Facebook: facebook.com/ Karissa.SalisburyPost

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