Bertie chairman lauds tax plans

Published 8:18 am Tuesday, August 11, 2015

WINDSOR – With his term as chairman of the Bertie County Commissioners approaching the end of its first year, Ronald Wesson likes the direction the county is heading.

In a position paper, Wesson said he and fellow Commissioners John Trent, Tammy Lee, Stewart White, and Ernestine (Byrd) Bazemore have been in the chairman’s words, “Thoughtful and deliberate to insure the Board has worked collectively to build a team approach where everyone has an equal voice in: 1) setting priorities, 2) establishing a positive tone for communicating their message to the public and interacting with each other, 3) striving for transparency on a continual basis, 4) insuring a critical examination of all County programs and services provided for our citizens, and 5) being good stewards of the resources (both financial and physical assets) for the county.”

Wesson says that in recent months the county’s residents have witnessed the increased tax revenue generated through the Board’s efforts to verify and insure accurate business personal property tax listings for all commercial taxpayers.  To achieve tax equity and fairness, every taxpayer must be encouraged to pay their portion as prescribed by the NC General Statutes.  Wesson continued the conversation by stating that this tax is essential for the business concerns in the county.

“I think (the tax) was really being applied unfairly, because nobody was checking,” Wesson said. “I can’t point a finger at prior Boards, but no one checked to see why it was paid, or why it wasn’t, if you paid the right amount, or whatever.”

In 2014 the Commissioners reviewed its second of two proposals for review and verification of business personal property listings.  County Tax Services, Inc. (CTS), the firm ultimately selected for the job, presented highlights of its success in counties around the region where they were previously engaged.

According to Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer in a March press release: in Hertford County the total discovered assessed value by CTS was $27,085,462 yielding an estimated $227,520 in new revenue based on the tax rate of 84 cents.  In Gates County, the discovered assessed value was $31,364,365 and the additional tax levy was $200,730 based on 64 cents.  In Chowan County, the discovered assessed value was $67,587,911 and the estimated new revenue was $462,977 based on a tax rate of 68.5 cents.

While many businesses have participated in the review and verification process, CTS reported that their main duty is as an informational process for the taxpayers to assist with achieving compliance with the state tax laws.  Once a business taxpayer’s listing has been reviewed, the taxpayer is notified in writing of the new value or discovery, and the taxpayer has 30 days to appeal the new value before a revised tax bill.  In Bertie County, the potential discovered value is estimated at $92,000,000.  Nearly two thirds of this amount is still being reviewed or under appeal.

“We have a lot of businesses who report,” Wesson stated. “Some of them were not doing so honestly because they did not understand.  We (the audit) have touched only about 25 percent of the businesses so far, and it’s about a three-year process.  It’s been educating these folks, so now they know and we can enforce the law.”

Wesson said for one unnamed Bertie County business, once its personal property was re-assessed, the county received a significant amount, but so too did the municipality where the business is located.

“That’s bigger than almost all of their regular ad-valorem taxes that the township charges,” Wesson asserted. “Another township got a smaller, but just as significant check.  Imagine if you’re these townships and here’s this new money.  You know what you can do?  You can go out and apply for a USDA grant which asks you to pay half of it and they’ll give you the rest.  You could turn, say, $40,000 into $80,000, and with that you can do streets, or whatever you want to do.  So it hasn’t just been a boom for the county, but by the time we finish this process it will be a boom for all citizens and all jurisdictions.”

Wesson claims there have been some challenges to the audit findings, but very few. In many cases, he feels the county will prevail in these challenges over uncounted assets.

“In some cases we look at what they’re paying in other counties where they do business and we know they weren’t paying it here,” the chairman says.

The current Board of Commissioners have not called for a tax increase in the county, but Wesson says many rural counties like Bertie are watching the General Assembly’s action on the plan for re-distribution of sales tax.

Bertie’s current sales tax rate is 6.75 percent and a referendum on increasing it to 7 percent was defeated in November 2014.

State legislators revealed a plan in March to shift the way sales tax revenue is distributed across the state, outlining an effort to help rural counties with more funding from the tax on goods.

Under the proposal, the shift would be phased in over three years, moving from a system weighted toward sending tax revenue back to where the sales are made to a system where the money is distributed strictly on the basis of population.

“Bertie County would be one of the big winners,” Wesson contended. “We get $1.7 million in sales tax a year.  Towns like Ahoskie and Williamston get way more because our people shop over there.  The way the new proposal would work is that all the (sales tax) money would go to the state, and in its redistribution by population we would go from $1.7 million to over $4 million.”

Eighty-three counties would get either the same amount they receive from the state in sales tax funds, or more.  Seventeen counties would get less, which has created uproar in larger metro areas like Charlotte and Greensboro.

“Fourteen of the 83 would benefit huge, and Bertie is one of them,” Wesson said. “Think about what it means in a county like Hyde, with one of the lowest ad valorem rates in the state.

“Counties like Mecklenburg and Wake are growing so fast; and this legislation is only for four years, so after four years their growth rate would return them almost back to where they were.  They won’t lose in the long run, but in the short term,” he reasoned.

Just last week the state Senate unveiled a compromise plan, where local sales taxes will be redistributed based 50 percent on where people live and 50 percent on where sales actually take place.

“Who knows which one will pass,” Wesson assessed, “but it would really change things here significantly.”

The chairman predicts BertieCounty’s abundance of water could be its next windfall.

“We have aquifers we haven’t tapped into, our wells are all performing, and every one of our water districts is operating in the black,” he maintains. “Fifteen years from now water is going to be a very big commodity, and Bertie County is sitting awful pretty, using a fraction now of what we can produce.”

As the Bertie Commissioners meet in plotting out the next budget cycle, Wesson predicts proper planning is paramount, and when the Board meets they will assess their progress and set the course for the next twelve months and beyond.

“Too many local governments and states across our country are failing financially because of poor planning and over committing future obligations that our taxpayers may not be able to afford or support,” he said.

“We hope to continue the legacy of Bertie County leadership,” Wesson concluded. “It is an exciting time in Bertie County’s history, and it is an honor to serve the citizens as a member of the Board of County Commissioners.”