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Debate on property tax increase heats up

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Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners ended its third day of budget workshops debating whether hiring additional deputies, public health workers and child support agents is worth increasing property taxes.

The board ended Thursday's meeting by directing Pitt County Manager Scott Elliot and Deputy County Manager/Chief Finance Officer Duane Holder to prepare a budgeting scenario showing what revenue is needed to add six new positions to the county budget and a scenario showing what other services would need to be cut to add the positions without raising taxes.

The commissioners will review the information at an additional budget workshop at 5 p.m. Monday in the Eugene James Auditorium, 1717 W. Fifth St.

The direction came after public health director Dr. John Morrow said his agency needs an extra nurse and health educator to combat a growing problem with sexually transmitted disease and social services director Jan Elliott lobbied for six additional positions.

Commissioner Mark Owens Jr. said he'd also like to see Farmville Library's appropriation raised by $5,000, increasing it to $10,000. Farmville sought a $3,000 increase in its request to the county. Ayden, Bethel, Fountain, Grifton and Winterville libraries sought no increases this year.

On Wednesday, Sheriff Neil Elks laid out his case for adding a gang investigator to his detectives' division, a surveillance officer to the detention center and four patrol deputies.

County Manager Scott Elliott, whose proposed budget does not raise taxes but pays for a portion of requested increases by dipping into the county’s savings, asked the commissioners for further direction.

Commissioner Melvin McLawhorn started the discussion by saying the financial pressures placed on families following Hurricane Matthew shouldn't be compounded with a tax increase.

"I do realize we may be kicking the can down the road but I have to look at the total situation that exists in the county," McLawhorn said.

Elliott said commissioners’ comments over the three workshops seemed to indicate they are interested in adding some of the additional positions to the budget.

"I don't see how we can add anything more,” Elliott said. The proposed budget uses all the fund balance it can while keeping it at an 18 percent level.

"Do you want to stay at 18 percent fund balance or are you comfortable going below," he said.

On Tuesday, Elliott said the commissioners could raise the fund balance to 18.73 percent if the commissioners approved an eight-tenths of a cent tax increase, which would generate about $1 million in revenue. The eight-tenths raise would increase the tax rate from 68.6 cents per $100 valuation to 69.4 cents.

Several commissioners said they wanted to see how much additional revenue would be generated if the increase was raised to a full penny, to 69.6 cents.

One penny generates about $1.2 million in tax revenue in Pitt County.

A penny tax increase isn't enough, Commissioner Tom Coulson said, saying it should increase to 71 cents per $100 valuation.

"It's my opinion that one of the most risky things to this county is gangs ... we need to do more with gangs," Coulson said. While Elliott's proposed budget added one gang detective to the sheriff's office, Coulson wanted to fund the two positions the sheriff requested.

Commissioner Beth Ward said she believes the detention center surveillance officer also is a necessity.

"The majority of people who will see a tax increase won't be the poorest of the poor," Coulson said. He said the 2016 revaluation showed that 56 percent of the county's residential property decreased in value; 40 percent increased in value and the rest remain unchanged.

Elliott said a one-cent tax increase on a $100,000 home would raise taxes by $10 a year or 83 cents a month; taxes on a $200,000 home would increase taxes by $20 a year or nearly $1.67 a month.

"It's not that much more for individual families but collectively it's a lot of money for the county," Coulson said.

Newly appointed commissioner Ann Floyd Huggins said she believed lower-income families would be adversely affected by a tax increase because rental property owners would pass it along to tenants.

Adding the positions without increasing taxes would require reducing a proposed cost of living adjustment for county employees or foregoing merit pay increases, Commissioner Glen Webb said. It also would require reducing proposed increases in education funding, he said.

Throughout the week Webb has expressed frustration that the county is spending millions funding positions and programs that the state should be paying for.

"I know the tax increase would be modest ... but my concern with the tax increase is how much time will it buy us, because the things we are funding are mainly things that are forced on us, things that are outside our statutorial or constitutional requirements. If we were to raise taxes are we really in another way kicking the can down the road for the state and federal government to expand what we do," Webb said.

He asked if the commissioners should stop paying for items and positions the state should fund. Webb said he's frustrated with the state's legislators bragging that they are cutting taxes by $1 billion and building a $500 million surplus.

"Then when I go to buy peanut butter, I'm getting yelled at for considering charging an extra $2 a month on a $200,000 home so I can get the kids taught, the trashed picked up, the deputies paid and try to stave off the gang problem we have in this county. It's just wrong," he said, referring to a recent trip to the grocery.

Webb later said he would never consider ending county funding for teachers or assistant principals.

"That was a statement out of frustration. Doing that is cutting your nose off to spite your face," Webb said. "When you look at the body of (the Board of Commissioners’) work over the last six years, we've stretched and strained and done everything we could to keep the tax burden as low as possible."

Commissioner Jimmy Garris said raising the tax rate to 71 cents was too much, that commissioners should consider going to 70 cents, which would be a 1.4-cent increase. Garris said the commissioners could reconsider the 71-cent rate next year.

Coulson said the commissioners would never consider a tax increase next year because 2018 is an election year and six of the board's nine seats will be on the ballot.

Following Thursday's meeting, Holder, chief finance officer, said the county must generate an additional $356,033 to add the gang investigator, surveillance officer, health education, nurse and two child support agents to the budget.

If the commissioners raise the tax rate by a penny, $1 million would go to reducing fund balance spending, leaving about $250,000 for additional spending.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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