Bigger budget, but without a tax increase

Published 10:27 am Monday, May 23, 2016

WINTON – Hertford County Manager Loria Williams is proposing to spend more taxpayer dollars in the county’s 2016-17 General Fund budget.

The good news is she is planning to do so without a tax increase.

At their regularly scheduled meeting here Monday night, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, as well others in attendance, were formally presented with a budget plan crafted by Williams for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

On that financial spreadsheet, Williams proposes a $27.7 million budget, which represents a six percent spending increase over the current fiscal year.

Williams pointed out several areas that will require new or added funding in 2016-17, to include a shade over $300,000 for renovations to County Office Building #1 in Winton (which will be completely taken over by DSS); $218,158 for a cost-of-living hike for county employees that took effect in January of this year; increases for both Roanoke-Chowan Community College ($155,000) and Hertford County Public Schools ($125,000); the first full year of operations for the new E-911 Center ($161,525), salary increases for the Sheriff’s Office ($112,000); and purchasing two new vehicles, including a new ambulance ($107,000).

Along with a few other smaller amounts, the new or added spending in Williams’ proposal totals nearly $1.5 million.

However, there are offsetting revenues to cover that proposed new spending, which allowed Williams to balance the 2016-17 budget without having to initiate a property tax increase. Thanks to a new distribution formula now being studied by the state General Assembly, Hertford County is projected to receive an additional $250,000 in state sales tax during the new fiscal year, along with approximately $175,000 from the federal government in a cost-sharing deal to renovate Office Building #1 for full use by DSS.

“I want to remind you (commissioners) that this added revenue in state sales tax is under Article 44, meaning those funds are restricted for public schools, the community college and economic development.”

Meanwhile, assessed property values in the county showed a slight gain ($1.57 billion, compared to $1.54 billion for the current fiscal year), which adds nearly $300,000 in ad valorem tax growth.

“The good news about our assessed property values is that although our gains there are small, they are gains and not losses,” Williams said. “We’re seeing other counties that have lost (property values).”

Another revenue stream is nearly $370,000 in liquidated damages the county received in 2016 following a settlement with the contractor for the new courthouse and government center, a project that was finished far beyond its contracted completion date.

The county will also receive $136,796 from Ahoskie and Murfreesboro as the proportionate cost share from those two municipalities to help cover the cost of operating the new E-911 Communications Center.

“Please note that of that $1.45 million in expansion items, nearly $1.35 million will become reoccurring costs,” Williams said. “We will only have reoccurring revenues of $846,000. That leaves $496,000 – which is three pennies on the tax rate – to plug sooner or later. Right now we can cover it; next year we may can cover it, but the year beyond I would say probably not just due to the way we do business.”

Williams did use a portion of the county’s healthy fund balance, which now sits at nearly $5 million, in her proposed new budget.

“I’m proposing to use more fund balance ($1.65 million) than I have over the past years,” she noted. “But our fund balance is at an all-time high (37.74 percent of the county’s overall budget) and I feel comfortable in using it. We’ve accumulated this fund balance over a number of years and you can spend it down very quickly by not paying attention. We’re in a very healthy financial condition, but we need to be reminded that fund balance shouldn’t be treated as a revenue source.”

It should be noted that Williams appropriates a million or more dollars every year in her budgets. However, the county winds up using only a very small portion of that annual appropriation. As an example, of the $1.42 million appropriated from fund balance to use for the current year budget, only $230,000 was used.

Overall, the biggest expenditures in Williams’ budget proposal will be Education ($6.86 million), Public Safety ($6.68 million), Human Services ($6.63 million), and General Government ($5.28 million). The additional funds for Education and Public Safety both represent a 10 percent increase over current year expenditures.

Meanwhile, the property tax rate remains at 84 cents in Williams proposal, and that comes complete with the three percent cost-of-living increase for county employees as well as funding the health benefits for those employees at 100 percent.

Her proposal also does not include hikes in user fees for the county’s Northern and Southern Water Districts, Solid Waste, and the Tunis Sewer District.

As part of her presentation, Williams reflected on how Hertford County’s tax rate compared regionally. While the county’s property tax rate remains unchanged since 2010, its regional neighbors cannot boast of the same. She noted that since 2010, Bertie’s tax rate has increased from 78 cents to 84 cents; Martin County from 67 cents to 73.5 cents; Northampton from 87 cents to 92 cents; and Chowan from 68.5 cents to 72.5 cents.

“I really debated long and hard going into this budget process whether to recommend a tax increase or not,” Williams said. “Over my tenure here, I’ve only recommended one (tax hike). That was my first year here and I was a quick study not to do that again.

“Over the years we’ve been able to continue to provide quality services to our citizens and improve our physical plant and infrastructure while maintaining our tax rate,” she continued. “We’ve been able to do that because Hertford County has enjoyed steady growth commercially and a diverse industrial base that continues to grow. We’ve been able to know how to do business and keep a close eye and control over spending.”

After hearing the presentation, the Commissioners scheduled a public hearing on the proposed budget at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 20. The 2016-17 fiscal year budget is required by state law to be adopted by the Commissioners on or before June 30.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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