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Commissioners decrease property tax rate by half cent, approve 2019-20 budget

SALISBURY — For the first time in 12 years, the Rowan County commissioners on Monday voted to decrease the property tax rate in conjunction with passing the coming year’s budget.

After hours of debate, commissioners voted unanimously to decrease the property tax rate from 66.25 cents to 65.75 cents per $100 valuation for the 2020 fiscal year. County Manager Aaron Church had proposed keeping the tax rate flat in a general fund budget that spends $159.48 million, a $7.08 increase in expenditures over the prior year.

It’s the first time commissioners have voted to cut the tax rate since the 2008 fiscal year — when the rate dropped by a much sharper margin, from 63 cents to 59.5 cents per $100 valuation. The commissioners on Monday did not drop the rate to a revenue-neutral level — $62.89 cents per $100 valuation.

“I think we would all like to cut the tax rate further, but we’ve done a lot today. … I think this is as good as we are going to get,” said Commissioner Mike Caskey.

Everybody needed to “win” in the 2020 fiscal year budget, which starts on July 1, board Chairman Greg Edds said. Commissioners “owed it” to the taxpayers to “give something back,” he said.

Asked before passage if the tax decrease would be OK, Church said it would increase the amount of money commissioners will need to spend from the county’s fund balance, which partially functions as a savings account.

“It’s tight but it will work,” Church said.

The tax rate decrease approved by the commissioners is roughly equivalent to losing out on $650,000 in tax revenue, Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said.

The vote just before 8:30 p.m. marked the end of a long day of meetings that started at 1 p.m. with a budget workshop, then continued with the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at 3 p.m. and a budget hearing that started at 6 p.m.

The budget, among other things, will provide an additional $15 million in debt capacity for Rowan-Salisbury Schools capital needs, provide raises across the sheriff’s office because of planned reclassifications, build a public library in Cleveland, budget for a new EMS station in Cleveland and provide $300,000 in funding for school resource officers at elementary schools.

Church’s initial budget had proposed replacing a portion of the Rowan County Courthouse’s roof, upgrading a surveillance van for the sheriff’s office and fully funding consolidation of probation officers in one downtown building, but the commissioners removed those and a number of other items to balance out additions approved Monday.

Discussion points

One point of discussion Monday included the addition of a quick-response vehicle to the Miller’s Ferry Fire Department.

Rowan County Emergency Services Chief Chris Soliz said the quick-response vehicle would help with slow emergency response times in the area and could be a “test run” for other parts of the county where times are slow, too. The vehicle will go into service  in January and be staffed by four people who would work 12-hour shifts. With a January start, about $220,000 would be allocated, said Heidrick.

The quick-response vehicle would not be an ambulance, Heidrick said.

A major debate Monday focused on a proposal to fund three child and family programs. Commissioner Judy Klusman had initially hoped to secure $154,000 in funding, but only secured $100,000 after it became clear that she didn’t have support from a majority of commissioners for a program to provide child care subsidies through Smart Start Rowan and she pulled the request.

“We have worked so hard and had conversations about how can we improve educational scores. Early child care is one of the ways that we can do that,” Klusman said. “I know that I am not going to prevail here, but I would just beg you all to think about this in the future.”

The two programs proposed by Klusman that commissioners agreed to support included providing $50,000 to a parenting program and an additional $50,000 to train people in the Community Resiliency Model, which aims to address trauma and chronic stress.

Near the end of Monday’s meetings, Caskey questioned why the county had not allocated funding for school resource officers in Rowan-Salisbury elementary schools to the tune of $300,000. And Church responded that he was unaware that a section of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ budget message was referencing resource officers rather than general security. After some debate, the commissioners agreed to fund the resource officers.

Because of the approved decrease in the property tax rate, the commissioners also agreed to fund small, half-cent tax increases in the South Salisbury and Woodleaf fire districts. While revaluation across Rowan County produced an average property value increase of 6.8 percent, Caskey said, the increases in South Salisbury and Woodleaf are needed because of worse-than-expected results in those areas.

The budget also includes an additional $118,000 in costs associated with raising the pay of officers in the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. The county had already budgeted about $815,000 to implement the findings of a department-wide pay study, but the actual costs rose to more than $900,000 once benefits were included. The commissioners approved implementation of the pay study by an unanimous vote.

Public hearing

During the budget public hearing Monday, a number of people spoke about topics ranging from providing a pay raise for a Department of Social Services employee to response times for emergency medical services.

Speakers included:

• Two employees of the Rowan County Department of Social Services, who spoke about providing a raise for an employee who handles information technology.

• Ron Price, who spoke about the need to improve EMS service in the Miller’s Ferry area.

• Cindy Fink, executive director of Meals on Wheels, who asked for $62,000 to feed 32 program participants.

• Tom Robinson, president of the Meals on Wheels board, who also spoke in favor of the Meals on Wheels allocation.

• Jason Burnett, of the South Salisbury Fire Department, who asked that commissioners allow the department to raise its property tax rate.

• Amy Brown, executive director of Smart Start Rowan. Brown spoke in favor of the child care subsidy for which Klusman requested funding.

• Norma Honeycutt, executive director of Partners in Learning, who spoke in favor of the parenting program for which Klusman requested funding.

Contact editor Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4248.

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