Property tax rate increase may be inevitable

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nearly every Rowan County commissioner said Monday he’d rather not raise taxes this year.
But most of them acknowledged it’s probably inevitable.
County Manager Gary Page told the board last year that if they didn’t increase the property tax rate for fiscal year 2013-14, they would likely be forced to do it this year.
“I think we’ve done about all we can to cut back,” Page said Monday. All that’s left to cut, he said, are non-essential but quality-of-life services such as parks and libraries.
Commissioners said they don’t want to see that happen.
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said he doesn’t want Rowan County to become a place that families and industry bypass when looking for new homes.
“We have taken things down as low as we can possibly go,” he said. “Nobody wants a tax increase, especially me. But it’s time to ask, how far down do we want to take our county vs. how far down do we want to keep our tax rate?”
Chairman Jim Sides said that while he’s proud of the fact he’s never supported a tax increase in the past, “if it’s necessary, if there’s no other way, I will vote for a tax increase.”
“At some point in time, you can’t continue everything you’re doing with the same amount of money,” he said. “I hope people understand that if now’s the time we have to pull the trigger — we have to raise taxes — it’s so we can maintain services.”
Page said last year the county took in $2 million less than it spent. If that happens again, a 2-cent property tax increase would be needed to make up the shortfall.
He warned against balancing the budget by further draining county savings, which now stands at about $15 million, or six weeks of operating expenses. He recommends rebuilding that account to about $22 million.
Taking that into account — and factoring in other expenses such as employee raises — Page said he could be proposing an increase of 3 cents or more to the current rate of just over 62 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
Monday’s was the first budget work session for the next fiscal year and, in addition to hearing from Page, gave commissioners a chance to voice their priorities.
Pierce said one of his biggest priority is continuing to work toward an animal control policy that only euthanizes a small percentage of animals — the ones that aren’t adoptable for some reason — and does that in a humane way. He also said he wants to reclassify county employees so they are being paid what they deserve for their skill and experience.
Sides said he wants to identify surplus county property that can be put up for sale, with the proceeds offsetting the cost of services, of renovating the former mall, or of potential tax increases.
Commissioner Mike Caskey said he had no major goals for the coming year. He’d like to continue looking at a possible EMS station in eastern Rowan and would consider a small increase to schools’ current expense funding, he said.
“I just want to kind of keep it where we’re at,” he said. “I’m not really interested in doing a tax increase, and I don’t think we need one.”
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he had no “major initiatives that I intend to bring forward.”
Mitchell said the county needs to “continue plugging along at the mall” and he’s optimistic that increasing rental income will cover debt the county plans to take on for renovations.
“Early indications are that’s going to happen, and surpass, reasonably quickly,” he said.
In the past couple of days, Page and some commissioners have heard from residents who believed the purchase of the former mall is to blame for potential tax increase.
Mitchell said every county service costs money.
“It’s borderline just an outright lie to say West End Plaza is going to cause a tax increase,” he said.
Page noted that when he first raised the specter of a tax increase last year, county officials had no idea the mall would be put up for sale, much less that they’d buy it.
Commissioner Jon Barber had the longest list of goals for the coming year, including pay hikes for county employees, allocating $100,000 more for economic development and $125,000 for the schools’ child nutrition program, and hiring more sheriff’s deputies.
He also proposed forming a committee to explore a fresh fruit and vegetable “prescription program” in which the county Health Department would give clients vouchers they could use to get produce from local sellers and a program to turn some surplus county property into housing for homeless veterans.
Barber said the new programs could be paid for with some of the $2 million expected from the sale of county-owned land at Summit Corporate Center for a retail development.
Barber also stressed quality of life and said that even without new programs, if commissioners decide just to maintain services at their current levels, they will have to raise taxes this year.
“I don’t see how we can do anything less for our citizens,” he said.