No Cause for Alarm on County's Debt Load
There are many ways to assess your financial health. How much cash do you have in the bank? If you have a house, how much is it worth? What’s your credit card load? Are you setting aside a fair percentage each month into savings?
Counties are no different, though the degree of difficulty and the dollar amounts are significantly higher than your average household. The core concepts, however, are the same, so when we want to assess the financial health of Moore County, there’s no one simple method by which to derive the answer.
County Commissioner Tim Lea, who has served these past eight years and chosen not to seek re-election, has lately picked a particular spreadsheet on which to sound an alarm. As Pilot reporter John Lentz wrote earlier this week, Lea is concerned about the percentage growth of the county’s overall debt level.
Lea, citing a sheet detailing the growth in county debt since 2007, is sounding off about a stomach-fluttering 256 percent growth in that debt during that time. Factoring in the principal and interest from various borrowings, Moore’s debt has grown from $55.5 million in 2007 to more than $197 million this year, according to that sheet.
“It is imperative that people who pay taxes know what their money is used for and what outstanding debt the county has,” Lea said. “That is what this report reflects.”
On this, we agree with Lea; an informed citizenry is critical, and it’s good for folks to know at least the bottom lines of their government’s balance sheet.
A Complicated Story
But no one statistic tells the complicated story of Moore County’s financial health.
As a whole, Moore County is in excellent financial shape. Were Moore County an average household, then it has excellent income, reasonable bills to pay, money in the bank and bountiful savings and investments.
How do we arrive at that? We looked at the bigger picture.
n The county’s tax rate is low, 0.46 cents for every $100 of property valuation. Just 16 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lower tax rates, and all but one — Brunswick — are rural, thinly settled counties. So Moore residents are under no tax onus to repay big bills.
n According to the N.C. Treasurer’s Office, Moore’s net debt per person at the end of last year calculated out to $1,318. For counties between 50,000 and 100,000 people, there were six counties with higher ratios.
n Moore’s ratio of debt service as a percentage of its assessed property valuation was 0.994 percent. Ten similar-sized counties had higher ratios.
n Moore’s estimated assets as of June 30 — $28.2 million — far outpace its liabilities of $2.6 million.
Moore County has its own standards as well when it comes to debt and financial health. Its guidelines call for net debt not to exceed 2 percent of taxable property values.
In addition, Moore officials usually set aside 15 percent for savings. If that percentage is higher, it goes into a special savings account for future big-ticket items. Although not final, that figure this year will be about $15.7 million, or 18.3 percent of all general fund expenditures.
Didn’t Increase Without Reason
We’re no fans of inflated government spending or racking up tons of debt, and there is no evidence of that in Moore County. The county has long held true to paying up front for what it can, saving for big-ticket projects and retiring debt early when possible.
As this county grows, it will undoubtedly need to borrow again. The debt didn’t increase without good reason over the last five years. We built new schools, expanded utilities, will soon open a needed detention and public safety center.
Surveying the whole of Moore County’s financial health, we see no reason for alarm.
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