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Bertie County proposes tax hike

WINDSOR – Unless there’s a secret pot of gold hidden under a rainbow somewhere in Bertie County, residents could see a nine-cent increase in their property tax rate for 2019-20.

But as they say, ‘This is only a test’; part of the preliminary budget proposal Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer presented to the County Commissioners at their monthly meeting on Monday.

“This is a proposed funding plan, and I want to emphasize the word plan,” Sauer began. “These are revenues and expenditures that address the priorities established by our Commissioners.”

The 2018-19 budget plan approved June 2018 was for $24.8 million. For the upcoming year, $26,195,000 would be the new budget.

One penny on the tax rate would yield an estimated $128,144 at a collection rate of 97.29 percent, which Sauer said is the highest tax collection rate in a decade. That increase would yield $1,153,296 to the county’s General Fund programs and $1.73 million Appropriated Fund Balance.

“This balances the playing field for our taxpayers while also giving our Commissioners a little bit more money to work with,” he added. “But this is just a start of the discussion; a plan for the Board to consider.”

Driving the budget, according to Sauer is county payroll cost; projected to exceed $9.24 million. It would fund 235 county positions; two new county positions with five Sheriff’s Department positions frozen, or left unfilled, for next year.

“It’s driven in great manner by investments the Board has made in public safety, law enforcement, and courthouse security,” Sauer emphasized. “And for the year coming up we’re estimating the county’s health insurance cost will be $1.6 million.

The proposed budget for 2019-20 also includes a recently approved effort by the Commissioners to improve recruitment and retention of public safety employees in law enforcement, communications and emergency services. They include increased compensation for existing EMT and Paramedic staff and vacant positions would have a fiscal impact each year of over $73,000 in the new fiscal year.

He also underscored the Commissioners’ decision of recent approval for increasing the base pay of a Deputy Sheriff’s position to $40,000 and the related compensation realignment to address salary compression for those already within the Sheriff’s Office, will have an annualized fiscal impact of $372,662 for the new fiscal year.

“We know that all those positions won’t be filled and that will be a significant part of what the Board will tackle as they work on the budget later this week,” Sauer said.

He further pointed out that Commissioners have also approved increases for the base pay for Sheriff’s Office Communications personnel to improve staff retention and recruitment efforts and how this will have an annualized fiscal impact of $57,232 beginning with the new fiscal year.

“When we aggregate all that together (EMS and Non-Emergency Transport, Deputy Sheriff and salary compression, and (Law Enforcement) Communications staff = $503,255) and Bertie County’s required adjustment for the retirement system of $104,953, then that’s a new $608,208 the Board has to examine moving forward; if every position were occupied as of July 1,” Sauer configured. “Dividing that by one penny on the tax rate, then that’s where you get the 4.75 cents on the tax rate; or over half of the proposed nine cents tax rate.”

The County Manager pointed out 13 county staff positions approved during the 2018-19 budget cycle, all of which were filled without a tax increase.

“The Board made budget adjustments in 2018-19 based on calculations for lapsed salaries due to vacant positions and related savings in order to incorporate these new positions without increasing revenue, and without a tax increase last year,” he noted.

“Our net cost is still growing,” he asserted. “It’s $380,000 almost, or approximately three-cents on the tax rate.”

New recommendations for 2019-2020 include a county Building Inspector to increase Bertie County’s capacity to meet the new enforcement requirements of the State Fire Prevention Codes; and, one additional administrative assistant position at the county Board of Elections to assist with the state’s new voter ID regulations ahead of the upcoming 2020 election cycle.

“She (Board of Elections Director Sheila Holloman) is a one-person office, and some extra horsepower in that office is needed,” Sauer said.

He also proposed continuing the county’s:

$200 annual contribution to the employees’ flexible Health Savings Account.

Three percent 401-K supplemental retirement contribution continued for all non-public safety employees

Three percent salary increase for all non-public safety employees effective July 1 with a net cost to the General Fund of $166,845.

Nearly $3.12 million is budgeted for Bertie County’s long-term debt obligations, of which $1,853,308 is the combined annual payment for the construction of Bertie Middle School and Bertie High School.

Outgoing Bertie County Schools superintendent Dr. Catherine Edmonds along with BCS Finance Officer Steven Harrell presented the school board’s budget request for an increase in appropriation of 11 percent.

$6,141,716 is recommended for Bertie County’s Special Appropriations Budget that supports many vital programs, regional agencies and non-profit organizations. Most of the special appropriations are annual operating support for Bertie County Schools, both community colleges and the Bertie Martin Regional Jail. Once these appropriations are accounted for, the balance of the recommended funding is $1,376,264 for other local commitments and contributions.

“I assure you there is no County Manager out there who presents a budget and has it approved without adjustments,” Sauer declared. “This is simply a plan and the real work begins for the Commissioners later this week.”

A public hearing is slated for Monday June 10 in the Commissioner’s Room of the County Administration Building, and the public is urged to attend.

“The Board’s intent is to have their final numbers together by June 18 at which time they would come in during the morning and adopt a budget,” Sauer concluded. “Copies are available online at the county website; we know this is a difficult time for our Board.”

Later during his comments, Commissioner Ron Wesson spoke for all the Board members when he implored the county’s citizens to review the budget, and if able, to attend the public hearing.

“I would encourage all of you to look on the county website so you will know how we plan to spend your money,” he encouraged. “For now, it’s just a plan, but we’re going to do our best to limit what kind of increase – if we have to have any at all. It’s hard work, but that’s what you put us here to do.”