No tax hike in proposed HC budget

Published 11:05 am Monday, May 8, 2017

WINTON – Despite rising costs in health insurance and projected increases in education and public safety expenditures, Hertford County Manager Loria Williams is proposing to maintain the county’s current property tax rate at 84 cents (per $100 of value).

But that may not be the case for future county budgets.

On Monday, Williams presented her proposed Hertford County local government budget plan for fiscal year 2017-18, which begins July 1.

However, before that budget can be adopted, a public hearing is required, which the county’s Board of Commissioners set for 7:15 p.m. on June 19. The Board can approve or disapprove the proposed budget following that public hearing.

At Monday’s meeting of the Commissioners, Williams pitched her plan – a $28,774,385 General Fund Budget for 2017-18. That amount is four percent higher than the current year’s budget and it does include a healthy shot of appropriated fund balance (nearly $2 million).

The lion’s share of the increase is proposed for Public Safety. Williams said the new budget includes $7.37 million for that department, reflecting a 10 percent increase over current year expenses.

“That increase is for EMS and security upgrades at our detention facility,” Williams noted.

As for the EMS funding increase, Williams admitted that the county is not competitive in salary for EMTs/Paramedics and hopefully increasing the Public Safety budget will address that issue.

“We want to move forward more towards Paramedic service, but still continue with basic level and intermediate level (EMT) staff,” she said. “Right now, our EMTs are working more hours than any other department, and that includes the Sheriff’s office. We need to address that as well by looking at increasing personnel that will allow them to work a 24-hour shift and then have 72 hours off. Right now we’re 24 hours on, and 48 hours off.”

As for education, Williams proposes $6.91 million, a slight increase over 2016-17. She said the current expense funding is the same, with the increase earmarked for capital outlay projects, to include those at Roanoke-Chowan Community College. That increase, however, can be absorbed by the $310,000 the county expects to receive byway of a new distribution formula from the state for Article 44 Local Option Sales Tax. Those sales tax dollars are restricted for use only by public schools, community colleges, or economic development.

“We will continue to take care of our schools,” Williams said.

All other departments, she said, will be on equal or very slight increased funding as the current year.

Williams said in building her proposed budget, there was very little new money. That’s due to the county’s lack of general growth….less than one percent in property value, which translates into only $174,602 worth of expansion. That’s down from $284,203 in the current fiscal year.

“Fifty percent of our revenue stream comes through property tax value,” Williams said. “Expansion dollars are very limited this year.”

On the bright side, Williams boasted a bit over the fact that Hertford County property tax rate has remained at 84 cents for the past six years. Meanwhile, rates in neighboring counties have risen as much as five cents.

“Property taxes the state went up this fiscal year in 30 counties,” she said. “It happens because there’s a need. If there’s no growth, like in our case, we still have statutory requirements to meet the needs of our citizens.

“We’ve held our tax rate the same, although there may have been a need for one,” Williams continued. “There are a lot of very real needs; that’s something we need to address in the future.”

Among the “budget drivers” for the upcoming fiscal year is a 20 percent hike in health insurance premiums for county workers. That, Williams said, represents $1.75 million of the budget.

“We are service providers, so the lion’s share of what we do is driven by costs of employees providing those services and among those costs is health insurance,” Williams stressed. “Health insurance increases are a growing trend, and until we try to reverse that trend with a wellness program we can expect those costs to continue to rise.”

The proposed budget includes a carry-over 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase for county employees. That hike was approved effective Jan. 1 of this year and was paid for then until June 30 with fund balance. Her proposal also includes maintaining the county’s 100 percent funding of an employee’s health insurance (individual coverage only).

The expansion items on the proposed budget total $1.57 million. Williams said there is enough revenue to cover that amount, but warned that $950,000 of that funding is available for 2017-18 only.

“We can’t spend that money but one time and I’m spending it now,” Williams said, referencing $692,000 in closing out the capital reserve fund leftover from building the new courthouse; $105,000 as the closeout to the Enviva Incentive Program; and $150,000 to end the transfer to the Capital Reserve Fund. “That revenue will be gone when we build the 2018-19 budget.

“So, is not raising taxes now the prudent thing to do, I don’t think so,” Williams warned. “But that’s a decision left to this board.”

As far as the Enterprise Funds, those self-sustaining through user fees, Williams said the costs remain unchanged in her proposed new budget.

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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