Tax increase inevitable?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rowan County commissioners have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to funding. They’ve staved off tax increases for a few years, a fact taxpayers appreciate. But county government has dipped so far into its reserves, commissioners may have no way out except to raise taxes.
That won’t be popular, and commissioners dislike paying taxes as much as the next person. Taxpayers should listen to the coming debate with an open mind.
Just to maintain county services at the current level would require about a 3-cent increase, according to County Manager Gary Page. That would bring our property tax rate of 62.25 cents per $100 valuation to 65.25 cents. Taxes on a $100,000 house would go from $622.50 to $652.50 — a $30 difference. How much would that hurt you as a taxpayer?
The current property tax rate in some surrounding counties is lower — 54 cents in Davidson and 48.5 in Iredell. And in others the rate’s higher — 70 cents in Cabarrus and 67 in Stanly. Rowan falls in between, which suggests our commissioners have not been wild spenders.
So what does the county property tax pay for? The largest chunk of the county budget goes to the schools — our public schools and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. County taxes also pay deputies to keep us safe and EMTs to help us in emergencies. Taxes operate the jail and courthouse, fund the Department of Social Services and the Health Department. They keep parks and libraries open and the Board of Elections operating. The list goes on and on. The county has 753 employees with benefits and 330 more without them (mostly part-time). The cost of paying all those people and running all those services has gone up, and commissioners have cut back and cut back again. Something’s got to give.
The 3-cent increase Page mentioned probably does not take into account increases in school funding — with or without a resolution to the current budget mediation.
And how does buying Salisbury Mall for $3.425 million fit into the budget picture? Has that also put commissioners in an uncomfortable corner? Page told commissioners a year ago they would have to raise taxes in 2014-15. That was long before they openly talked about buying the mall, though Craig Pierce had mentioned it. Commissioners say the mall, now West End Plaza, has not impacted county finances — yet.
Commission Chairman Jim Sides says county finances are such that even he might see the need for a tax increase, and he knows how to pinch a penny. But Sides has voted against virtually every budget presented to him in all his years in office. The commissioners to watch are Vice Chairman Pierce, Mike Caskey, Chad Mitchell and Jon Barber. The final decision will rest with them.
And then it will rest with the voters.