Vote Delayed on Tax Hike, Budget Plan
Moore County's tax rate hike pain may be eased after all.
County Manager Cary McSwain recommended a 3.2-cent increase, rather than 3.9 cents, to the Moore County Board of Commissioners at a Monday night meeting.
No action was taken on his recommendation, nor did the commissioners approve the 2008-2009 budget as expected.
Instead, they went along with Chairman Colin McKenzie, who asked the board to table the $80.5 million budget until the June 16 meeting to give the new Government Efficiency Committee an opportunity to examine the document in more detail.
In a brief Tuesday morning telephone interview, McKenzie said he was pleased that McSwain has found places to reduce budget items to cut the tax hike. He said the board did not ask McSwain to find the cuts, that this was an initiative of his own making.
"I think it's fine," McKenzie said. "Any way you can make it less painful, I'm in favor of it."
Not all of McSwain's cuts are in the general fund tax rate. His recommendation reduces the Advanced Life Support (ambulance/paramedic service) tax rate by half a cent from the present 3 cents to 2.5 cents.
If his recommendation is approved, the general tax levy increase would be cut by 0.2 cents, from an increase of 3.9 cents to 3.7 cents.
That would cut the total tax rate from 51.4 cents to 50.7 cents on the $100 property evaluation. That total includes the tax levy of 48.2 cents plus the 2.5 cents for ALS. The tax rates for the current year are 44.5 cents plus 3 cents for ALS.
The 3.9-cent hike was recommended when McSwain presented the proposed budget for 2008-2009 at the May 19 meeting.
An increase had been expected because the first bonds from the $69.5 million education bond package are being issued in the new budget year, which begins July 1. An even larger increase had been predicted, with some officials estimating that the bond package, along with other county capital needs, might result in a tax rate increase as high as 12 cents. A more realistic prediction was seven or eight cents.
When it came time for the board to consider budget adoption Monday night, McSwain offered an updated recommendation based on additional review by Finance Director Lisa Hughes and himself since the last meeting.
McSwain suggested these possible reductions: $38,210 for Sandhills Community College; $35,600 in the 911 emergency communications system; $30,000 in the Health Department information system; and $1,494 in grant match reduction. These cuts would reduce the levy increase by 0.1 cent. To this he added another 0.1-cent cut by reducing group health benefits by about $144,722.
But with a proposed delay in adopting the new budget on the table, the commissioners made no comment about the manager's recommended reduction in the tax rate increase.
In suggesting a delay in adoption of the budget, McKenzie said it would be only fair to give the Government Efficiency Comm-ittee a little additional time to study the voluminous budget document. He said committee members did not receive their copies until the previous Thursday and had not had sufficient time to study it in full.
"We've asked those five gentlemen to help with the budget, and we've got good people there," McKenzie said Tuesday morning. "I don't think it's fair to pass the budget without asking their input first."
Commissioner Tim Lea asked McSwain if the delay would present a timing problem for his staff.
McSwain said that although he would prefer to follow the budget preparation calendar as adopted, he saw no reason why a delay would be a problem. He added that it might even be an advantage to wait a couple of weeks to give the state legislature time to clarify its direction. Legislative action can have any number of effects on local government budgets, ranging from the size of teachers' raises to reimbursements.
On a motion by Lea, the board voted unanimously to table budget adoption until the June 16 meeting.
The commissioners did take action on one item recommended by the committee and adopted a set of fiscal policy guidelines. The committee, chaired by Jim Westbrook, presented the fiscal policy recommendations at a board work session in May.
McSwain told the board that the guidelines would provide policy guidance when the county administration works on financial issues throughout the year as well as at budget time.
Hughes, the county finance officer, said the proposed policy contains provisions for establishment of a capital reserve fund through use of monies in excess of 25 percent of the fund balance available for appropriation. Hughes said another new policy addresses the handling of enterprise funds, primarily those funds collected from customers of the water and wastewater treatment systems.
The policy also provides guidelines for such things as budget development, debt structure, cash management, investments, and capital improvements.
In addition to Westbrook, the committee includes Dick Westcott, Bob Tweed, Nick Picerno and Densel Williams. Picerno is commissioner-elect for the board seat being vacated at the end of the year by McKenzie.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at florence @thepilot.com.
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