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Tax hike averted

WINDSOR – First it was, and then it wasn’t.

After indicating during Monday’s monthly meeting before the Bertie County Commissioners that a tax hike might be forthcoming in the 2018-19 budget draft, Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer now says there won’t be one.

The new proposal came after a marathon work session Tuesday by county staff and the Commissioners.

“It is just a plan,” Sauer said at his Monday presentation. “I’ve assembled costs and revenue projections just so the Board will have something to work with when they begin their work session.”

The budget proposal as presented totals $24.9 million, an increase of $1.01 million, and is an increase of 4.2 percent over last year’s approved budget ordinance. The 2018-19 proposal originally included a five cent tax increase, as presented on June 4.

“The Commissioners ultimately made adjustments with a net reduction for the General Fund of approximately $786,000 which eliminated the proposed five cent tax increase proposal, and provided additional flexibility to include a two percent across the board adjustment for employees,” said Sauer.

The Tuesday work session began with each Commissioner giving their perspective on the budget proposal. Commissioner Tammy Lee was firm in her conviction that a tax rate increase this year is not going to happen.

Vice Chairman Ron Wesson suggested taking the proposed budget line by line and examining all of the budget estimates, while Commissioner John Trent echoed those sentiments and said he was ready to start with the revenue projections in the proposal.

Currently, for Bertie tax payers, one penny on the tax rate yields nearly $127,000. A five-cent increase on the tax rate would bump that up to almost $633,000 per annum, which became the initial target amount for cuts.

Just one year ago, the county reduced the tax rate by one-half cent.

“There are limited options when it comes to funding new programs, funding new initiatives, and covering the increased cost of doing business,” Sauer said on Monday.

The Commissioners reviewed 12 pages of revenue line items regarding sales tax estimates, excise taxes, restricted and intergovernmental funds, as well as permits and service fees. This discussion led to a lengthy examination of the county’s EMS Paramedic and the Non-Emergency Transport ambulance programs.

EMS Medicaid reimbursements have been very challenging to predict, yet the county received $205,000 in 2017 and $180,000 more ($385,000) in 2018. The line-item review noted no estimate for this revenue was incorporated in the proposed budget, and after deliberating about the confidence in Medicaid estimates, the Board agreed to budget $400,000 in EMS Medicaid reimbursements for 2018-19.

The Commissioners then reviewed departmental expenditure trends by department, making adjustments line by line, and reaching a total of $651,324 in cuts, including the $400,000 in EMS Medicaid reimbursement.

Working well into the late afternoon the Commissioners continued to make additional adjustments, mostly reductions, until a figure of $786,124 was achieved.

“The Commissioners have been very proactive in recovering from the floods (Tropical Storm Julia and Hurricane Matthew in 2016), but also in rebuilding of facilities that were lost,” Sauer stated. “They’ve also made investments in infrastructure, improving the quality of life for its citizens.”

The proposed budget also has an emphasis on security from the courthouse to the schoolhouse.

Included in the General Fund budget expenditures for 2018-19 are security improvements for the Bertie County Courthouse as recommended by both Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant, and his District Court counterpart, Judge Brenda Branch.

“Public safety and security enhancements remain a very high priority for the Commissioners, as well as Courthouse security staffing, school security improvements, and the retention of staff at the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail on County Farm Road,” Sauer said.

The security enhancements would total some $349,000 and include:

Additional Sheriff’s Office deputy positions to be added.

An increase in both staff recruitment and retention at Bertie-Martin Regional Jail, specifically to address eight current vacancies, and included as a recruiting incentive would be a signing bonus for new applicants.

In their budget request to the Commissioners, Bertie County Schools appealed for $100,000 in School Capital Outlay for security hardware and tech improvements.

“It’s not quite three-cents on the tax rate, but it’s close,” Sauer acknowledged.

Among an additional increase of $372,000 would be for several new county personnel positions and the increase in funding for employee health insurance premiums.

The total in security plus personnel additions: $721,000.

Among the appropriated fund balance (AFB) recommendations: $1.6 million, equal to the current year’s budget ordinance; a capital improvement project for the construction of an public access road to the Albemarle Sound recreation area (Tall Drink of Water), which will include parking and a beach path; and, funding to assist in the continued archeological study of the Lost Colony ‘Site X’ at Salmon Creek in partnership with the Town of Windsor to promote local heritage tourism.

“There are at times special appropriation needs that come before the Board,” Sauer said. “Some they approve, and some they don’t.”

Ultimately, the Commissioners unanimously approved directing the Sauer and Roberson to prepare a budget ordinance for consideration which incorporates all of Tuesday’s cuts and adjustments. If that ordinance is approved in the Commissioners’ final vote, it would insure that the tax rate for the county would remain unchanged at 83 cents.

Commission chairman Ernestine Bazemore thanked the Commissioners and staff for their efforts in reaching a final budget with no tax increase and one that includes a two percent across the board salary increase for county employees.

The County Manager does advise all citizens to peruse the proposed budget online at the county’s website: http://www.co.bertie.nc.us . A public hearing to discuss the budget will be held Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m. in the Commissioners Room at the County Administration Building where any person who wishes to be heard concerning the proposed budget may address the Board.

“It’s an opportunity for all citizens to comment, and at that time we will update you on any changes the Board will have made to this latest proposal, because I do expect that there will be some more,” Sauer added.