No tax hike in Northampton
JACKSON – Facing a $4 million-plus deficit a little over one month ago, all early indications pointed to a property tax increase for Northampton County citizens.
Fortunately, thanks to cost-saving adjustments within local government departments and the transfer of $1.25 million of undesignated fund balance, the ad valorem tax rate remains at 92 cents (per $100 of property value).
The Northampton Commissioners approved that rate here Wednesday morning as they unanimously approved the county’s 2015-16 fiscal year budget, which goes into effect July 1.
The $31.93 million General Fund budget reflects a four percent increase ($1.15 million) over the current 2014-15 budget.
“This budget sustains county operations and services at a basic, but effective level,” County Manager Kimberly Turner told the Commissioners at Wednesday’s public hearing.
Turner did note that this was a revaluation year for property in the county. Typically, that value increases and, subsequently, the tax rate declines. However, that wasn’t the case as property has decreased in value since the last “reval year” in 2009.
“The revenue-neutral tax rate, based on those new values of property, called for a 97-cent rate, which would generate the same amount of revenue in 2015-16 as we operated on for 2014-15,” Turner told the RC News-Herald at the close of Wednesday’s meeting. “However, we were able to hold the tax rate as it currently stands, 92 cents.”
She added that the new budget does account for the county’s annual debt payments of nearly $1.63 million. Of that amount, $825,420 is used for debt payments for the county school system; $799,170 in general county debt and retains a Contingency Fund in the amount of $100,000.
“I applaud our County Manager and Finance Officer (Dot Vick) for taking a revenue-neutral tax rate of 97 cents and keeping that rate at 92 cents,” said Commissioner Robert Carter.
Carter added that he liked what he saw in the line items under the Public Safety category, a department that benefits from a two percent increase in the new budget.
“I applaud them for looking out for the safety of the citizens of our county,” he said. “When we first met on May 15 (in budget workshops), we faced a $4.6 million (budget) deficit. Now the CountyManager comes before us and tells us there is no change in our ad valorem tax rate.”
“This could not have been possible without the help of our department heads,” Turner stressed. “They sacrificed a lot to make sure we were able to keep our tax rate the same.”
Carter also noted that most citizens think that the county’s Department of Social Services is responsible for straining the local budget.
“Out of their (DSS) overall $63 million budget, the county only appropriates 3.1 percent (of that funding),” he stated.
The lion’s share of the DSS budget is covered through federal (70.2%) and state (26.7%) funding.
While the news of no tax increase was welcomed, Joe Holloway, Finance Officer for Northampton Public Schools, made it clear that the county did not increase funding for the local education system.
“My concern is the $4.6 million shortfall that was projected; what areas were those projections in and how did you overcome those shortfalls,” Holloway inquired.
“What we did was decrease the department’s budgets; we decreased requested allocations from outside agencies; and we appropriated fund balance,” Turner said.
“The document I originally saw was not enough to overcome the $4.6 million shortfall,” Holloway noted. “I also saw the line item where it reflected that the county was paying for the SRO (School Resource Officers) and the cost of their vehicles, when the school system actually picks up that tab. We reimburse the county for that out of our capital outlay, which is an additional shortfall in our budget.”
Vick told Holloway that the county’s budget has to show the SRO line item as an expense, even though the school system pays the county for those services.
“I want to emphasize that we have level funding once again from the county,” Holloway said of the $3.73 million allocated in the new budget for the school system, the same as the current fiscal year.
The budget also failed to deliver cost of living increases for Northampton local government employees. That prompted Commissioner Joe Barrett to think that may cause some heartburn as those workers may leave the county seeking better pay.
“It’s been a difficult budget year, and the hard thing for me is that we’re not able to take care of our employees,” Barrett said. “I wish there was a way to help them with a cost of living raise. I feel without it we will lose some personnel to other counties.”
Barrett was also concerned about the loss of temporary and part-time workers in the Public Works department.
“We talked about that in our budget workshops and the only thing we could do to balance the budget for that department was remove $14,000 in temporary and part-time employees’ salaries,” Turner said.
Public Works Director Jason Morris said the loss of those workers may impact one particular service – that of operating a service truck that goes around the county to pick-up discarded white goods.
As far as the revenue driving the 2015-16 budget, over 50 percent ($15.76 million) come from property taxes. Other major sources of revenue include $1.63 million in state sales tax; $1.55 million in health revenue; $1.54 million in sales and services; and $1.24 million in vehicle taxes.
Other than the local tax money going to support Northampton Public Schools, the other key departments receiving the bulk of county money include Public Safety ($8.73 million, of which the Sheriff’s Office and the County Jail are budgeted a combined $3.9 million); Human Services ($4.6 million); General Government ($3.84 million); and Economic/Physical Development ($1.13 million).