Bertie lowers tax rate by one penny; fire dept. funding increase on hold

Published 10:52 am Thursday, June 23, 2016

WINDSOR – Despite an appeal from the county’s fire departments and concerns regarding changes to the county’s retirement health care plan, Bertie County Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the recommended budget ordinance for fiscal year 2016-17.

The big news is the tax rate reduction by one cent to 83 cents per $100 of assessed value with a corresponding tax levy cut of nearly $125,000.

The tax cut is thanks to federal Medicaid reimbursements to the county’s Emergency Medical Services system, including non-emergency transport, totaling over $400,000 in new revenue.

“We have budgeted the same amount into the new 2016-17 fiscal year budget so that enables the one-cent tax decrease,” noted County Manager Scott Sauer.

“Much of the work they’ve put together is pretty much a continuation of last year’s budget,” Sauer added, “specifically, a support of human capital.”

Part of that ‘human capital’ interest led Sauer to recommend strongly that the Commissioners place a priority on two areas where Bertie County has struggled with turnover: law enforcement and social services. There is anticipation under the new sales tax distribution formula that Bertie could receive at increase of $500,000 a year, to other estimates that have been much higher, and that will affect the county’s jobs.

“We don’t know if that will touch every job in Bertie County, but we think that will make a tremendous difference in those areas where there’s such a significant priority,” Sauer said. “We have set aside the growth in the anticipated sales tax to give (the county) as much latitude as possible and hopefully make some adjustments early in this fiscal year.”

Current expense funding for Bertie County Schools for the next fiscal year will be set at $3,003,000 – or $500,000 above the state minimum requirement. Sauer says this comes despite a decline in enrollment.

The schools’ capital outlay funding in 2016-17 rises by $110,000 to $375,000.

After two county employees during the comment period expressed concern over possible reductions in health insurance costs, Sauer said this was one of the issues the budget workshop wrestled the hardest with. Costs for the county’s existing retirees will be $350,000 thanks to savings from the state health care financing plan

“You take the $350,000 we’re paying for the folks who’ve already reached retirement and then the $242,000 we’re going to try to set aside for future obligations and that’s roughly a nickel on the tax rate,” Sauer reasoned.

The Commissioners agreed that beginning July 1 of this year, new hires would not be eligible for retiree health insurance; they would still be eligible for insurance they receive while working for the county. This was the only decision regarding the county’s health insurance policy the Commissioners adjusted from 2015-16.

“Bottom line, we’ve got to do something – we can’t continue to kick the can down the road,” Sauer said. “Each of us would have a $1,500 unfunded liability that the taxpayers would have to pay at sometime. The (Commissioners) aren’t trying to put it on employees or leave it for future taxpayers; it’s done methodically to set monies aside so this won’t become a train-wreck like the federal deficit.”

In the public buildings budget ($255,851), $119,000 is committed to the next phase of Courthouse improvements, reduced thanks to not paving the parking lot; $50,000 to improve the animal shelter on County Farm Road; and $83,450 for the first phase of upgrades (lease) for the Blue Jay recreation facility.

Funding for the county’s regional water system is $2,821,400 to fund all four districts; and some $1.5 million in grants and $4.23 million in long-term loans will cover some new water projects for the county.

Among other projects: Visions for View is funded for $10,000; and Better Beginnings for Bertie’s Children – a Smart Start initiative at $52,540.

Poll workers during elections will have their compensation increased from $7.50 to $10 per hour.

“There are no new fulltime positions in the budget,” Sauer alerted. “The person who’s hurting the most with that is (the Sheriff’s Office). We want to first be committed to the folks who are already here; the ones who are doing the job for Bertie County. Later in the year, we’ll see recommendations to use that tax money – and any Medicaid reimbursement that’s left over that hasn’t been allocated – to consider a new pay and classification plan.”

As to improving support for the county’s 12 fire departments, a task force has been assembled to investigate ways to get them increased appropriation, chaired by Commissioner Stewart White.

“There is some real strong interest in trying to do something, the support is there, they’ve build some flexibility into the budget,” Sauer said. “But the task now is how we do something sustainable over the long term but not to rush into it and maybe miss the mark of what’s most appropriate.”

Finally, the County Manager said the general fund – the chief operating fund of Bertie County – was $5,871,534. And while the county should maintain an available fund balance of 10 percent of general fund expenditures for the unforeseen, Bertie is currently at almost 26 percent for general fund expenditures and nearly 33 percent in total fund balance.

“We’re good at figuring out what we’re going to spend (in the remaining days before June 30)”, said Sauer. “The part that’s a little more difficult is on the revenue side because we’ll have accrued sales tax and EMS revenue that won’t finish up until nearly October.”

The County Manager said county Finance Officer William Roberson’s estimate the fiscal year will end with Bertie County having an available General Fund balance of 24 percent and total fund balance of over 29.5 percent; both down slightly from a year ago.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us because there’s a lot to be focused on in the next couple of weeks,” Sauer noted. “But we’ve been managing our resources, meeting some tough priorities and planning for the future, we’ve tried to give a little bit back to the taxpayers.”

Prior to the final vote Commissioners Tammy Lee expressed her concern over how the one-cent tax decrease affects the county’s fire departments.

“I was assured there would still be money available after the one-cent decrease, because I was in favor of helping everybody,” Lee said. “The one-cent decrease does give money back to everybody and we’re going to hash out all the issues with the fire departments and come up with some money for you because you deserve it.”

White had information about the fire departments’ insurance and equipment. White said his ‘task force’ will do more to assist the departments. The News-Herald will elaborate on his comments in Saturday’s edition.

Following the close of the public hearing, Chairman John Trent called for a motion to approve the 2016-17 budget. The motion to accept was made by Lee, seconded by Co-chairman Ernestine Byrd Bazemore, and it passed by a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Ronald “Ron” Wesson having an excused absence due to a family matter.