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County budget proposal would hike taxes

Rowan County Manager Gary Page recommended a tax increase of 3.75 cents in the 2014-15 county budget proposal he submitted Monday to commissioners.

For the past five years, Page said county management has attempted to maintain sound finances by consolidating departments, cutting overhead expenses and “living within our means.”

“If you read last year’s budget message, I told the commissioners I thought they needed to raise taxes 3 cents,” Page said. “At the time, it had been nine years since we had raised taxes. I told the commissioners I didn’t think people could expect us to continue to provide the services, hold the line and not raise taxes.”

No tax increase was approved, the economy remained stagnant and the issue was pushed out another year.

“Over the last six years that I’ve been here, we’ve basically tried to use our reserves, cut and drag it out as long as possible without a tax increase because the board felt we shouldn’t raise taxes on the citizens during a recession,” Page said.

The county has cut 50 positions out of the budget in the last six years, 20 of which were brought back when the county built the jail.

The proposed general fund budget for 2014-15 is $133.5 million, which is about $4.5 million more than last year’s adopted budget.

The proposal reflects little growth in revenue, Page said, and thus requires a tax increase to pay for expanded services.

“We have $15 million in the bank. We’re at about 12 percent fund balance, and I don’t think we ought to go any lower,” Page said. “I’m telling the board, rather than going lower, we need to raise taxes 3.75 (cents).”

Page said the tax increase will enable the county to give raises to employees, increase funding to the schools, pay for West End Plaza and replace the loss of $2 million in vehicle taxes next year.

The proposed budget includes $515,893 in new funding for the two school systems and charter schools.

The increase in funding, coupled with the net loss of 52 students, raises the per student appropriation from $1,599 to $1,627.

The recommended budget includes a 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment for all county employees, Page said, which amounts to $459,000 per year.

“What we hear is that the teachers are not satisfied with their salaries, so the state is trying to find a way to give them increases,” Page said. “Whatever applies to the teachers, applies to my employees. My employees are no less professional than they are.”

Commissioners’ failure to raise new revenue will result in the depletion of fund balance, Page said.

“With an 8 percent minimum fund balance, the county will have a difficult time borrowing for future needs and handcuff future boards from providing its citizens with basic services,” Page said.

Commissioner Craig Pierce said the budget identifies plans the county has for the future.

“We have people who want, and demand, that we have more services — but they don’t want a tax increase,” Pierce said “Looking at the situation and what we have been told by the citizens of Rowan County — if that is what you want, this is the tax rate we have to have.”

Pierce said the county is trying to keep employees’ pay stable when it comes to cost of living.

The county’s employees are trained, experienced and know how the department works, Pierce said.

“If you don’t take care of your employees, you are in a constant state of flux,” Pierce said. “I’ve been in situations where you work for three or five years for the same money. We gave (the employees) a raise last year, and we’re looking at giving them one this year. We don’t want to see them going to other places because we don’t pay competitive wages.”

For commissioner Jon Barber, Page is a “true professional” who has been involved in budget processes for 35 years.

Barber said commissioners had neglected Page’s 3-cent tax increase recommendation last year.

“The Rowan County Board of Commissioners has a fiscal responsibility this year to have a balanced budget so the newly seated board is not saddled with a financial mess,” Barber said. “(Page) is recommending the same three cents from last year, only .75 cents more. The only thing (the .75 cents) can fund is the debt financing on the mall.”

The county has been spending money it doesn’t have, Barber said, and the only way to compensate for overspending is to raise taxes.

The majority of the board should be held accountable if they do not adopt a budget that is fiscally responsible by the end of June, Barber said.

“I’m willing to debate until June 30. If it takes that long, so be it,” Barber said. “Citizens need to know how fiscally irresponsible the current majority has been with the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Barber said the county’s fund balance was at 24 percent of the annual operating budget when he became a commissioner.

“Today, we are around 12 percent,” Barber said. “That means we have utilized our fund balance during difficult economic times to avoid a tax increase and spent it on pet projects we didn’t need or could have waited.”

The county also is currently undergoing a tax base re-evaluation, Barber said.

“I met with people in the tax assessment department, and they will be finished with the process by July,” Barber said. “The overall Rowan County tax base will be flat at best.”

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