|Vote on 22-cent county property tax hike soon|
|Tuesday, August 14, 2012|
By PATRICK HALL
A property tax increase was approved by the Wilson County Commission Budget Committee last week, which gives raises to county employees, funding for school building projects and aims to strengthen the county’s general fund, all with a 22-cent increase.
The new tax rate would be set at $2.72 if approved by the full commission on Monday, Aug. 27, at its next meeting. The current rate is $2.50.
“It is still the commission’s decision,” said County Mayor Randall Hutto. “They could decide to do nothing, they could whittle it down even more. But they have a tough decision to make.”
In two budget meetings during the past two weeks, members of the committee discussed how to increase the county’s general fund balance on the advice of Finance Director Aaron Maynard.
“If you do nothing this year, you’ll have to do something next year, which means increasing property taxes or cutting the general fund,” Maynard told the budget committee in a recent meeting.Maynard said he would like to see the general fund maintain at least a $6 million balance in order to cover operating expenses for two months in the event of an emergency. However, he noted getting $6 million in the fund would be a gradual process.
Of the 22-cent proposed tax increase, Maynard said 3.91 cents was allocated for employee raises, amounting to a 4 percent raise. Also included in the tax increase is 6.99 cents to balance the county’s general fund.
“That will put our revenues right at or above expenditures,” Maynard said of the 6.99 cents.
The county had a projected fund balance of just over $2 million on June 30, and Maynard explained they expected to lose that $2 million before closing the year, leaving the county with $100,000 in the fund balance.
“The 6.99 cents gets us to where we don’t lose that $2 million,” he said.
Over time, that increase would build the general fund toward Maynard’s goal of at least a $6 million balance in that fund.
“From the mayor’s seat you never want to raise taxes, but I have to leave that decision with the commission,” Hutto said. “My goal from day one has been to give the commissioners all the information they need.”
Also included in the 22 cents is 1.39 cents for the Sanitation Department, 2 cents for the Road Commission and 2.83 cents to cover needs in other county departments. Maynard said the largest needs being covered with the 2.83 cents involve the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department and Wilson County Emergency Management Agency.
He said the Sheriff’s Department is expected to hire six new employees as well as pay for fuel and equipment through the tax increase. WEMA also will use the funds to cover fuel costs.
Some of the increases cover a rise in operating expenses for departments such as Sanitation and Roads. Maynard said the increase for the Sanitation department balances its budget. The Road Commission has seen a steep rise in materials such as asphalt over the years and must cover that cost.
“That’s a situation where the money they spent on asphalt for paving just doesn’t pave as much anymore,” Maynard said.
Of the 22 cents, 3 cents is allocated for the Wilson County School System building projects and 1.88 cents for its transportation department to cover the costs of busing and fuel.
Maynard said the 3 cents would go toward building a new Watertown High School, which came in over budget considering Wilson County Commission approved the issuance of bonds in March for the school in an amount not to exceed $28 million.
“That money goes into a fund to pay debt,” Maynard said, indicating the 3 cents would go into the General Debt Service Fund, which currently receives about 20 cents from the current property tax rate.
Hutto said the citizens of Wilson County expect the local government to deliver services, spending their tax dollars as wisely as possible. He said the taxes that citizens pay should be returned to them with exceptional services.
However, he noted government is also experiencing a rise in costs to provide those services.
“The rising costs that have hit ordinary people have also hit government,” he said.
Maynard noted during a recent budget meeting that almost 70 percent of the county’s general fund expenditures are payroll or payroll-related expenditures. He said the projected expenditures for the upcoming fiscal year budget amounts to $37.7 million.
Since the county expects to lose $2 million from its general fund before the year’s end, Maynard told the committee they would have to cut approximately 53 positions to balance the budget without a tax increase.
None of the committee members were in favor of cutting jobs, and the vote to approve the 22-cent increase was unanimous.
Also, during the committee’s meeting on Aug. 7, the members unanimously agreed to bring a resolution before the full commission that would require 17 votes from the commission to spend the fund balance below $2 million.
Maynard proposed the idea as a way to keep fund balance from getting below that level, which he said is a dangerous area for the county to be in the event of an emergency. He said it was “critical” the resolution be approved.
“I’d like to see us say we’re not going to spend fund balance below $2 million,” he said. “We should start and $2 million and say you need a majority to spend below that level, but as we build more in the general fund, that resolution should change.”
Maynard said when the county builds up a fund balance up to his ideal level of $6 million he hopes a resolution requiring a majority of the 25 commissioners to approve spending funds below that amount will be in place.
The Budget Committee is to meet on Thursday, Aug. 16, and could discuss any changes to the tax rate then. The tax rate requires the approval of the full commission at its next meeting at 7 p.m., Monday. Aug. 27.
Members of the Budget Committee did not return phone calls by press time for comment on this story.