Vance budget proposes 3-cent tax increase

Vance County residents would see a 3-cent increase in their property tax rate under the 2005-06 budget proposal County Manager Jerry Ayscue presented to the Board of Commissioners this evening.

Ayscue’s proposal, formally received on a unanimous vote of the four commissioners present, is the culmination of weeks of work in winnowing down departmental requests to what Ayscue and Finance Director Jerry Tucker consider the bare essentials. The commissioners have until June 30 to make any adjustments they see fit and pass the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Ayscue reported that if he had followed the budget requests of every department and agency the county funds, the property tax rate would have jumped from the current 90 cents per $100 valuation to $1.19.

“That’s outside the realm of possibility,” he said.

Instead, he proposed a tax rate of 93 cents per $100, with no increase in the 3-cent fire tax applied to property outside the Henderson city limits.

Ayscue also is proposing an increase in the solid waste fee applied to each household from $75, the charge since 1998-99, to $90.

Four of the seven commissioners — Tim Pegram, Deborah Brown, Eddie Wright and Terry Garrison — attended the 20-minute special board meeting to receive the budget. They had little to say during or after the meeting, generally preferring to study the manager’s proposal before commenting.

The budget includes two new sheriff’s deputies starting in January, midway through the year, and a new clerical position for the Sheriff’s Office starting in February. The other personnel moves aren’t entirely new positions: Two halftime maintenance workers, one at the jail and one at the Department of Social Services, would become full-timers, and, for the second consecutive year, a public works director is proposed for the final nine months of the fiscal year if the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides rural development funds to cover the start of a county water system.

Ayscue does not propose across-the-board pay raises for county employees. Instead, he recommends performance-based raises, to be effective July 1.

The proposed general fund budget totals $40,589,613, up slightly less than 3.2 percent from this year’s $39,300,481.28. The requests to the county manager totaled more than $43.4 million.

“In most all cases, budgetary requests have been found to be reasonable and supported by valid documentation,” Ayscue wrote in his budget message. “Inflation, program changes, mandates, extraordinary insurance rates, escalating fuel prices, and numerous other external factors have a significant impact on budgets this year.”

The manager proposed overall county spending for 2005-06 of $46,312,546. That total doesn’t count $2,755,500 in revenues such as fines and forfeitures that simply pass through the county to other funds.

Ayscue said the budget uses the top end of revenue estimates, so the county commissioners won’t be able to cut the proposed tax rate merely by using higher predictions for the money flowing into Vance’s coffers. The county’s revenues are expected to be:

* $18,785,293 from ad valorem (property) taxes. That figure is based on the 93-cent tax rate applied to a tax base of $2.025 billion, which is about 1 percent higher than last year. The county is counting on a collection rate of 92.05 percent, the audited rate for 2003-04 and therefore the maximum the county may use. That collection rate is about 1 percentage point higher than the previous year. Each penny on the proposed property tax is estimated to be worth $186,400 to the county.

* $8,595,000 in the local government’s sales tax.

* $395,000 from the fire tax.

* $255,230 in Alcoholic Beverage Control revenue.

* $11,864,060 from assorted local fees, rental income, interest payments and other sources.

* $7,595,951 from the state and federal governments.

* $1,567,512 from fund balances. That total includes $700,000 from the general fund balance. “We’d really like to be able to not appropriate any fund balance,” Ayscue said. He added that at 17.8 percent, the county’s general fund balance is safely above the 8 percent minimum recommended by the state’s Local Government Commission, although it’s below the 25 percent that’s seen as ideal.

Among the increases in Ayscue’s proposal:

* Medicaid spending would increase by $410,000, about 15 percent, to $3.15 million from the $2.74 million budgeted this year. Ayscue said this year’s actual spending will exceed the budget, and he called the amount proposed for next year a “fairly conservative estimate.” He added that the state’s estimated budget increases for the health care program for the poor and elderly “are absolutely astronomical, and frankly I think they’re off-base.”

* The continuing effort to create zoning countywide is budgeted for $190,000, up from $150,000 this year.

* The county, under state mandate, is creating a pension and retirement fund as a contingency. The fund would be tapped to cover retiree insurance premiums in case of a large number of retirements in one year, and it would be used to pay the separation allowance now required for law enforcement officers who retire after meeting certain standards for age and service. Ayscue said it’s a questionable need for Vance, but he set aside $35,000 to get the fund started.

* Workers’ compensation insurance premiums are budgeted to cost $190,000 more, although Ayscue said the county is shopping for better offers.

* The county’s share of the budget for the H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library would increase to $300,000, $50,000 more than this year but $48,000 less than the library board requested. Ayscue said he budgeted in the expectation that the library will be in the new building for two months, whereas the library’s request represented four months in its new Embassy Square home. By comparison, Henderson City Manager Eric Williams proposed Thursday that the city spend $253,208 on the library. The city and county traditionally split the local component of library spending 50-50. When they have to compromise because one of the governments is struggling, Ayscue said, they usually settle on the lower amount.

* Vance County Schools would get an increase of $98,000 in local funds, to $8,936,631. The county funding breaks down to $6.987 million for current expenses, up 2 percent from this year’s $6.85 million; an unchanged $1 million for the local supplement to the state-paid teacher salaries; an unchanged $415,000 for capital outlay; and $534,631, down from $573,000 budgeted this year, in accumulated capital-project money that originates with the state based on the student population. In what Superintendent Norm Shearin characterized as a bare-bones budget, the school system requested $7.35 million in current-expense funds, enough to cover 3 percent raises and a 20 percent increase in retirement and health insurance, and $885,604 in capital outlays.

The school system is the county’s No. 2 expense. The highest proposed spending is for the Department of Social Services, $12,231,033, up 3.9 percent from $11,771,491. About a quarter of that department’s budget is for Medicaid; North Carolina is soon to be the only state in the nation that requires counties to contribute to the costs of the federal-state health program for the poor.

Law enforcement would get $5,235,653 under the county manager’s plan, including $2,208,306 for the Sheriff’s Office, a 5.4 percent increase; $272,982 for the Interagency Drug Enforcement Unit, a 2.3 percent decrease; and $2,460,317 for the jail, up 3.8 percent.

“We tried to do a good job and be responsible,” Tucker said.

Action in the General Assembly could affect Vance’s budget, particularly in education and social services. But Ayscue said the indications from Raleigh are that legislators could be working into the fall on the budget that goes into effect July 1.

The county does not have the luxury of such a delay. The county commissioners must enact a balanced budget by June 30.

Using Ayscue’s proposal as a starting point, the commissioners will begin work on the budget Tuesday at 6 p.m. The required public hearing on the budget will take place during the commissioners’ regular meeting Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m.

Garrison said that because of the hard work of the county staff to produce a lean budget, the commissioners won’t have to change much. “You don’t give us a lot to shoot at,” Garrison said. “We won’t have to work too hard.”