Bertie tax hike proposed by citizens

Published 4:32 pm Tuesday, June 13, 2023

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WINDSOR – If there is a property tax increase for FY 2023-24 in Bertie County, don’t point the figure of blame entirely at the county’s board of commissioners.

At a public hearing held June 5 regarding the proposed new budget, citizens were not happy over the fact that salary hikes for the Sheriff’s Office and EMS personnel were not included in the $25,337,710 General Fund budget.

County Manager Juan Vaughan II said the new budget is balanced without having to increase the ad valorem tax rate, which is currently 86.5 cents per $100 of value. That tax rate has been in place since 2019.

However, an additional tax is proposed for FY 2023-24 for the Bertie County Fire Protection Service District. Vaughan said the purpose of this new tax (3.762 cents per $100 of value) is to be the primary funding structure of the county’s rural fire departments that serve the unincorporated areas of Bertie as well as the towns of Askewville, Aulander, Colerain, Kelford, Lewiston Woodville, Powellsville, and Roxobel.

“This [new tax] will generate enough to maintain the current level of funding historically provided to the fire departments from the General Fund budget,” Vaughan said, noting that the aforementioned fire departments receive $30,000 annually from the county.

There is a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 20 regarding the establishment of that fire protection service district.

While there is not an across the board cost of living adjustment for all employees of Bertie County Local Government, Vaughan did say there is an increase recommended for the general staff salary schedule. He noted that general staff employees do not include EMS or the Sheriff’s Office. Those two, he said, have their own salary schedules. The Sheriff’s Office salary schedule was updated in 2019, at which time the starting pay for deputies was increased to $40,000 annually. EMS salaries were updated in 2019 and 2021.

“It was a priority for me to increase salaries [for 2023-24] on the general staff pay schedule in an effort to retaining and recruiting employees,” Vaughan stated. “It has been 10 years, possibly 15 to 20 years, of the last increase to that salary schedule.”

Vaughan is proposing to increase the starting annual salaries of general staff to at least $21,450, which is equivalent to $11 per hour.

Due to that proposed increase to the lowest grade on the salary scale, Vaughan said every employee’s salary on this particular schedule was considered for an increase.

“The first step to determining which employees were eligible for an increase was to ensure that no employee made less than the minimum for their respective grade on the salary schedule,” Vaughan explained. “The second step was to consider the number of years each employee has served in their current position. If employees were already on the appropriate step [pay grade] then they are not eligible for an increase.”

He added that of the 116 current employees on the general staff salary schedule, 73 are slated to receive a salary increase. That will cost the county approximately $300,000.

Vaughan said that the commissioners proposed to give a $500 bonus to the 43 general staff employees who were not scheduled to receive a salary adjustment.

Over the next 52 minutes, the commissioners listened to the comments of the public regarding the proposed FY 2023-24 budget. The majority of those supported salary increases for EMS and the Sheriff’s Office. One referenced the $40,000 starting salary for a Bertie deputy, saying it is the lowest in the region.

“We need to take care of these guys [deputies] because they take care of us,” he said. “The same for EMS.”

An employee of Bertie County EMS expressed concern that without adequate pay, retention of staff becomes problematic. He noted there are currently 11 vacancies within the department.

Bertie Sheriff Tyrone Ruffin worried that without the promise of a raise, some of his deputies may leave to work for higher pay in another local county or town.

“If they leave, the work must go on, but look at the value of what we are losing,” Ruffin noted. “And think about what the lack of a raise for our deputies affects. It affects our school system, our court system, it affects families, and it affects our citizens.”

There were a handful of citizens who went as far as to say they would favor a slight increase to the ad valorem tax rate and use those funds to increase the salaries of the Sheriff’s Office and EMS.

“So, what I’m hearing you say, at least those who are here, is that we need to do more,” Commission Chair Ron Wesson rhetorically asked those attending the public hearing. “Please understand that the money we spend comes from you, the taxpayers. For us to do what you are asking, we’ll need more to spend.”

“I am one of the largest taxpayers in Bertie County. I’m willing for my taxes to increase so you guys and gals that work hard can get better pay and better benefits,” said Commissioner Ron Roberson.

“So am I,” said Commissioner John Trent about being a large taxpayer. “We don’t want to put a patch on this, we need to fix it. That’s going to cost about $840,000 which is six cents on the tax rate. I said two years ago that we needed to do this, but we had other issues then with COVID. We need to take care of our people and not patch it. Our people deserve the best. It may take two budget cycles to do this, but six cents is what we need.”

“Thank you to the EMS; thank you to the Sheriff’s Department; you don’t get paid for what you’re worth, but I will say it’s step in the right direction to bring up the salaries of those making $22,000, $24,000,” said Commissioner Michael White.

“We have examined very option possible; we know there’s no way to please everybody,” Commissioner Corey Ballance Sr. stated. “None of us really want to raise taxes, but to get everyone satisfied there’s no other way to do it. I want everyone to live comfortably. Something needs to be done. We have to figure out a way to do this and we’ve already figured out we can’t do it without raising taxes. Listening to you all, that’s what you want us to do.”

In closing, Wesson wanted all taxpaying citizens of the county to understand what is being asked of the commissioners.

Referencing the call to raise ad valorem taxes, plus the fact of the proposed fire protection district tax, Wesson said, “I don’t want the citizens to say they didn’t know it was going to be this much. We’ll go back and take a look at what we can do. We just need the support of the citizens to do it.”

The next step in the process is to take the citizens’ comments under consideration, make possible changes to Vaughan’s proposed budget, and meet again at 6 p.m. on June 20 for possible adoption of the FY 2023-24 budget.

The budget is required to be adopted by June 30.

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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