Commissioners plan to hold line on taxes

By Vicki Hyatt | Feb 21, 2014

As the Haywood County Commissioners contemplated upcoming budget issues, there appeared to be at least one certainty — the tax rate for the coming year would again remain unchanged.

Following a brief overview showing the 2013-14 budget is on track, board members shared top priorities for the coming year.

All agreed maintaining, or even lowering, the tax rate would be a top priority.

“That’s my No. 1 goal,” said Commissioner Michael Sorrells. “I know my business is not anywhere where we need to be. … People are still hurting out there.”

Sorrells said past goals have helped increase efficiency, and the budget numbers show the strategies have been successful.

The current $68.7 million county budget is still below the 2008-09 fiscal year when the economy soured and commissioners made deep corrective actions. The county still has 54 fewer employees than it did during that year.

Budget reductions in capital improvement budgets for both the community college and the public school system, county employee reductions, and deep cuts in the county’s capital project funds made up the bulk of the savings.

In addition to pent-up demands to address capital needs, the county is faced with an additional $1 million in costs for the coming year because of legislative actions passing costs on to county governments. A large part of the extra costs are for foster care and the requirement counties must pay for court-related costs where fees were previously waived.

There were also considerable county costs to upgrade the Medicaid processing system — along with the need to hire temporary employees to address new requirements under the state system.

In addressing budget priority needs for the coming year, Commissioner Kevin Ensley asked Ira Dove, the county’s interim manager, to keep an eye on the employee wellness program, which has already saved the county money and has potential to save even more.

Commissioner Bill Upton suggested it’s time to do a salary survey to see how well the county measures up to other government units and asked that supplement levels for school employees be looked at as well.

In North Carolina, the state covers education salaries for the most part, but some areas offer additional supplements to attract educators to the district.

“What’s happening in Raleigh with education will really put more emphasis on that to stay competitive,” Upton said of the local education supplement. “Big counties that have the money will be pulling our teachers away, and we can’t afford to lose our best teachers.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed that keeping the tax rate static was a priority — something that could be tough in light of legislative changes that increased county costs, he said.

“It appears this year will be more like a reactionary plan as to what we face from our legislature and requirements for funding,” he said. “We’ll have to see how that affects the county population and take a deeper look at the budget and what’s been taken away.”

Commission Chairman Mark Swanger warned that an even more alarming prospect that has been mentioned for several years now is for the state to turn secondary road maintenance and upgrades over to the counties.

“If that happens, it is an immediate increase of $.25 on the property tax rate,” Swanger said.

“The mindset has been they don’t think the tax we impose is sufficient,” he said. “They think the county should be taxing more and state taxing less. We’ve got to relay to our constituents that we are reacting to that to provide services.”

Swanger suggested the county become more involved with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the lobbying arm of the county, as a way to help avert legislation that will pass costs down to local taxpayers.