Bertie tax rate unchanged

Published 10:12 am Thursday, June 21, 2012

WINDSOR – In the end the tax rate remained unchanged.

The Bertie County Commissioners discussed the possibilities for the tax rate during a public hearing about the fiscal year 2012-13 budget, but in the end a majority of the board decided that additional funds could not come from fund balance.

Commissioner Norman M. Cherry Sr. asked several questions about the possibility of dropping the rate from .78 cents per $100 valuation to .76 cents.

In the end, Cherry said he didn’t feel the board could afford to make the change and offered a motion to adopt the budget. Commissioner Charles L. Smith offered a second and the budget and tax rate was approved by a 3-1 margin. Commission Chairman L.C. Hoggard III joined the majority in the vote while Commission Vice Chairman J. Wallace Perry objected. Commissioner Rick Harrell was out of town and did not attend the meeting.

Before the public hearing, the board heard public comments about the budget from the Democratic nominee for the District 1 seat on the board, Ronald Wesson.

Wesson began his comments by making it clear he was a citizen and for the sake of transparency that he was a candidate for a seat on the board. He then thanked Bertie County Manager Morris Rascoe, Finance Officer William Roberson and John Ed Whitehurst for their work on the budget.

He said he found the work to be “very thorough, well structured and user friendly in terms of understanding the current proposed budget in comparison to prior years.”

Wesson, however, said he thought the board had done a disservice to citizens when they talk about not having raised taxes in 10 or 11 years.

“As a standalone, that statement does not give citizens the full story of where the county’s finances/budget stands and is, in fact, an inaccurate statement,” he said. “Not raising the tax rate of 78 cents is only half of the story. Our commissioners have continued to raise the county’s debt service by adding new liabilities such as the Social Services building, hospital, middle school and other smaller projects without focusing enough attention on growing the county’s revenue base.

“Understand that no one hates tax increase more than I do, so the only way to take the burden off the taxpayer is to grow and expand new sources of ‘non-citizen based’ revenue/taxes,” he continued. “Continuing to raise our debt service hurts the county when we attempt to take advantage of favorable financing opportunities.”

Wesson said that included the new high school project.

He also commented on the current budget, saying that even though the tax rate wasn’t scheduled to changes, taxes were being increased because the revenue-neutral number during the revaluation year was just over 73 cents.

“That, ladies and gentlemen, is a five cent tax increase on each of us,” he said. “The citizens of Bertie understand that there is no free lunch and that expanded facilities and service need to be paid for. The commissioners simply need to practice telling citizens the whole story and not simply give us an incomplete story on where the county’s finances and budget stands.”

After the input, Rascoe presented the budget which he said would keep the tax rate at 78 cents per $100 valuation and was based on a 96 percent collection rate.

He said the budget included no cost of living increase for employees, but did add a position in the Bertie County Sheriff’s Office as well as in telecommunications and reclassified one position in finance. It also moved a part-time position in the water department to a fulltime job.

Following Rascoe’s presentation, Cherry asked about the county’s undesignated fund balance.

“With using this 773,000 plus dollars, how do we stand in terms of being able to do things like build the school and other things,” Cherry asked.

Rascoe said the unaudited fund balance would be $4 million which would put the county on the borderline of having the 15 percent required by the Local Government Commission.

Cherry asked if the board decided to drop the rate to 76 cents what it would mean.

Rascoe said that dropping the tax rate would mean pulling just over $1 million from fund balance for the proposed budget.

Perry said if each penny produced $103,000, it shouldn’t add up to over a $1 million, but Roberson said the figure was an average and that he had calculated it and that it would be just over $1 million appropriated from fund balance if the tax rate was dropped.

Cherry then asked what the fund balance figure would mean for the board next year when it came to setting the tax rate. Rascoe answered that it would depend on what happened with the building of the new high school.

Perry asked what the revenue neutral number was and Rascoe said 73.17 cents would be revenue neutral. Perry said that meant the board was actually increasing the tax rate by almost five cents.

Cherry said that was true, but even so the board was dipping into the fund balance more and more each year.

Rascoe said at some point the board had to stop dipping into the fund balance because it would be depleted if that didn’t happen.

After the discussion, Cherry made the motion to adopt the budget which was carried.