Gates County Commissioners approve three-cent increase

Published 9:51 pm Friday, July 5, 2019

GATESVILLE – Rather than raise property taxes six cents, the Gates County Board of Commissioners, following several rounds of debate, approved a three-cent tax hike, as well as plans to dip into reserve funds to balance the budget for fiscal year 2019-20.

During a June 17 meeting, the commissioners opted to appropriate more than $259,652 from unencumbered reserve funds to balance the $12.9 million general fund budget in lieu of raising taxes by six cents. The increased spending was sought due to a request made two months ago by Gates County Rescue & EMS of a need to increase their operational funds. That request centered on the need to add a second, full-time crew to handle EMS calls.

The total tax will be $0.79 for FY 2019-20 per $100 of property value. The current rate is $0.76.

Commissioners voting in favor of the tax increase were Jacks Owens, Henry Jordan, Ray Freeman III and Jonathan Jones, while commission chairwoman Linda Hofler opposed the motion.

In recent weeks, commissioners grappled with a wide range of possible tax increases ranging between four and six cents. However, a draft budget prepared before last week’s meeting did not include a tax increase of any kind. That proposal sought a total of about $519,304 to balance a $12.9 million budget with $259,652 coming from the general fund and additional $259,652 from the enterprise fund.

Earlier budgets also sought to adjust the salary schedule for county employees so their pay scale would be more in line with market rates, as well as what neighboring counties pay. Merit increase and salary study recommendations to improve county employee salaries was approved in the new budget.

Owens said he’s been listening to many citizens about the possibility of raising taxes – some favoring a slight increase while others opposed the measure. He said those in opposition changed their minds after hearing that the county would need to dip into the enterprise fund.

“The same people who called me about not raising taxes – called again and said raise taxes; the same people,” Owens said. “So we all get the opportunity to change our mind if need be.”

Rather than seek a six-cent increase, Owens proposed for discussion commissioners’ input a plan to raise taxes three cents and take the equivalent of the three cents ($259,652) from the general fund – nothing from the enterprise fund.

Freeman said he is very reluctant to raise taxes, but after receiving input from others, he would support a three-cent increase.

“I believe all the money that is in these funds – that’s your money, that’s citizen money,” Freeman said. “That money exists; it’s there. However, I think in this particular situation I can certainly live with a three-cent tax increase and take the balance from the general fund.”

Hofler discussed the intricacies of the fiscal planning process where borrowing money from one account or others, particularly the water fund, to balance the budget may have consequences down the road. Hofler said she too supports a tax increase

“I would support a three-cent tax increase – I don’t like to take it from the general fund either – but I will agree to that,” she said.

Jordan added, “Three cents is not a lot and always next year, we can look at cutting back if we need to, so I’m not opposed to the proposal.”

The commissioners approved an 11th hour spending add-on from Jones for $50,000 to be transferred to the school system’s budget to hire a new employee, perhaps an additional band director, rather than appropriate that money toward hiring a full-time clerk for the county’s finance department.

County Manager Natalie Rountree said an additional finance clerk is needed not only to reduce workload on county staff, but to better conform to best practice accounting standards sought by the state’s Local Government Commission.

County Finance Director Kim Outland said based on recent conversations with auditors, “There are a lot of things the county should have been doing that they haven’t been doing. … Hearing all of things that we are going to have to take on, it’s either we’re going to be staying late and there’s going to be comp time. I don’t want to have to ask folks to stay after 5 p.m., but the work has to get done. You’re looking at another position or paying comp time. … There’s only so many hours in a day that two people can’t do everything.”

Rountree said the clerks are already cross trained and do the jobs needed to serve the public. She said recent audit findings suggest that there be “additional eyes and hands” to do payroll versus what’s already in place – essentially, a system of checks and balances.

“You can’t cross train anyone else in finance department because there is no one else to cross train,” she said.

Hofler said it is important to correct the system so as to avoid future audit findings that would affect the LCG’s position toward any future financing.

“I just think that we’ve had these findings for two consecutive years on the audit and the LGC is going to ding us too.”