For the first time in a decade, Moore County is raising property taxes — something that has been in the making for several years.
County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a $162.8 million budget that increases the property tax rate by 4.5 cents to 51 cents for each $100 of value in part to fund higher debt payments for building new schools and other facilities, as well as increasing funding in areas such as law enforcement and social services.
But given that property values have gone up as a result of the recent revaluation, the increase for most taxpayers will be even more.
Normally after a revaluation when values increase, the tax rate is adjusted downward to what is called “revenue-neutral,” which would generate the same amount of revenue as before, taking into account normal growth. That would put the tax rate at 44.23 cents.
Commissioners made no changes to County Manager Wayne Vest’s proposed budget despite pleas from parents and educators during a required public hearing for a larger increase in county funding for schools. They also heard calls to reject the budget and tax increase as unnecessary to cover the higher debt service, in part because of voter approval of a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax last November that will provide enough money to repay the debt.
“I spent a lot of hours thinking about it,” Commissioner Catherine Graham said before the vote. “Are we doing the right thing? Is there anyway we can cut anywhere and still provide the needed services to Moore County? … I truly believe this is a good budget. I don’t like paying taxes more than the rest of you do.”
Beyond the increased debt service for building new schools, Graham said the budget funds additional positions in the Sheriff’s Office and Social Services, which has seen a dramatic increase in child abuse cases related to the opioid crises, as well as meet other needs.
“We have an explosion of needs in the county and we are responsible for taking care of as much as we can,” Graham said, adding that she doubted the public would “appreciate” the board making cuts in those services just to reduce the tax rate.
“I wished we didn’t have to raise taxes,” Graham said in concluding her remarks “We couldn’t provide proper services”
Board Chairman Frank Quis said before reading a statement in support of the budget that the tax rate has not changed in 10 years and that previous boards have actually reduced taxes and “therefore reduced revenues that could come to the government to services that we need.”
“This budget can best be described as catching up and looking ahead,” Quis said, reading from his statement. “Going back in time helps explain where we are and what we need to do to begin to pay for the new schools, community college nursing facility, courthouse and increased demand for county services.”
He said that when the tax rate was reduced to its current 46.5 cents in 2009-2010, the county’s population was 88,247. He said it is now more than 99,264.
“Moore County was only beginning to recover from the recession in 2008-2009,” he said. “In those days budgets were tight and there was little interest in increasing county government spending.”
Quis said that while the county has “managed well since 2016, it is time to look ahead.”
“The decision to undertake construction of new school facilities and a mandated courthouse forced the Board of Commissioners to confront the reality of how to pay for those facilities,” he said.
Quis said that for the county “to fund present needs and look ahead to future needs,” the tax rate had to be increased. He said that “unless there are unforeseen circumstances,” the tax rate should not have to be increased again in the next four years.
Commissioner Jerry Daeke said no one should have been surprised by the need for a property tax increase. He said this has been talked about for months.
“We talked about it being as much as an 8-cent increase,” he said. “This didn’t just come up this week. We pay property taxes too. It is going to impact us too. I know it sounds like a high amount. But it is a fair amount that is going to do what we need to do.”
Commissioner Otis Ritter said when he was first elected to the board in 2014 he pledged that he would “never vote to raise taxes on the people of this county.”
“Never say never,” he said. “We’re responsible for paying the bills for Moore County. You hired me to be frugal and look at what is best for the people. … I’ve been through this book (budget) and I would say, ‘what can we cut to make this tax level? It is just not there.
“Some of you are saying give us more money. Some of you are saying don’t raise our taxes. We can’t do both. There is no way in the world. … I had to go back on my word. Folks I am responsible to what is right by this county and the children out there in those schools. You hired me to look after you. This is the way we are going to do it.”
Commissioner Louis Gregory recalled several years ago when the commissioners visited Aberdeen Primary, where they saw “crumbling walls,” leaking roofs and insect infestation, as well as several other aging campuses. He said something had to be done, and it comes at a cost.
“We kicked that can down the road for as long as it could be kicked, 10 years or longer,” he said. “In the beginning, I said we need to do something for the kids to have the best education possible. We have been doing that ever since with new schools, and with the understanding the public would have input.”
He said that had some of these needs been addressed years ago, the impact to taxpayers would not be as great.
“We have confronted 10 years of inactivity,” he said. “I do believe we have come a long way. We will not let this happen again.”
County Manager Wayne Vest said in his opening remarks that this budget “is about what we have seen coming for a long time.”
“It is about bringing what we have seen coming into a clear focus,” he said. “It is about turning that focus into a clear fiscal vision that will serve this country and the citizens well into the future. We have met about it. We have talked about. We have projected it. … we have fine-tuned it and zeroed in on the target. This budget delivers a bullseye strike.”
Vest noted that during the successful bond campaign, projections showed that a 5.4- to 8.4-cent tax increase would be needed to repay the debt, depending on the results of the revaluation and whether voters would approve the sales tax increase.
“We’re right in that range,” Vest said. “All along the way, we’ve been talking about this budget coming. Two years ago, I said it’s coming. We’ve set parameters in this budget that will provide a clear fiscal vision for years to come, through this (four-year) revaluation cycle and beyond.
“If we stay within the parameters of this budget, the natural growth in the tax base should fund operations and capital needs for year to come. It provides the board the flexibility to address deferred capital needs of the schools and the county.”
Vest noted that a previous board could have increased the tax rate to 48.84 cents in 2015-2016, the revenue neutral point, following the last revaluation when overall property values decreased. He said that amounted to a tax reduction for most property owners.
He pointed out that over the last 10 years, the county has managed to payoff existing bonds early and refinance others to save on interest, increase its capital reserve funds and its own reserves, increase funding for education, and also receive an upgraded bond rating — all without raising taxes.
Besides the property tax rate, the county’s Advanced Life Support tax, which funds paramedic level ambulance service, will remain at 4 cents per each $100 of property value. All property owners pay that tax.
The countywide fire service tax will remain at 9.5 cents. It is paid by property owners in the unincorporated areas of the county and does not apply to those within a municipality.
The overall budget represents a nearly 14 percent increase over the current year and “prioritizes” education, public safety and human services, which Vest said accounts for 77 percent of the budget.
Of the total $17.9 million increase in the budget, $15.6 million, or 87 percent, is for those top three priorities. He added that about $12 million of the increase is for new debt. In addition to the three bond-financed elementary schools, the county is financing the McDeed’s Creek Elementary School and expansion project at North Moore High School through traditional bank loans.
Vest said the budget funds 17 new positions, all in public safety — eight detention center offices, four patrol deputies, one dispatcher, three in emergency medical services and one in the 911 call center.
The public schools will receive $32.589 million for local operations, capital outlay and digital learning. That amounts to a $1.5 million increase over the allocation for the current fiscal year. It is $2.6 million short of the increase requested by the Board of Education.
Vest pointed out that the county’s total spending on public schools next year, including debt service, amounts to $56.7 million, a $12.5 million increase over this year, and accounts for slightly more than 49 percent of the county’s total operating budget.
Anticipating that some speakers might accuse the county of not allocating funds for certain items in the school budget, Vest pointed out that the county appropriates funding and that the school board and superintendent have “full discretion … to determine the priorities and allocation what gets fund and what does not.
During the public hearing, in which 19 residents spoke, several parents and educators urged the board to grant a larger increase to the schools, especially funding to restore 13 teaching positions to reduce class sizes in grades 4-12, increasing pay for classified staff and more funding for deferred maintenance.
“Moore County is growing at a rapid pace,” said Renee Coleman, who has two children at Pinehurst Elementary. “More and more families with school-aged children are moving here everyday. It is time for Moore County to stop dragging its feet on their support for public education. What we are asking for is simply what it takes to fairly and adequately provide for the children’s education. It’s the bottom line.”
Coleman said they are aware of the shortfalls in state funding, which the commissioners cannot control.
“Let’s right the ship at the local level,” she said. “What’s at stake upon the outcome of your decision is at the expense of Moore County’s children. Ultimately they are the ones who desperately heed the money. They are the ones who will suffer without your support. … Do what is right and invest the most important thing we can, our children.”
She brought her daughter, Stella, who is a rising fourth-grader at Pinehurst Elementary, who asked the board to provide more money for smaller class sizes and “help us get more teachers.”
On the other end of the spectrum, several speakers urged the commissioners not to increase property taxes and challenged their claims that it is needed to repay bond debt.
“This is well more than is needed,” Cleta Mitchell said of the funding the higher debt service. She urged the commissioners to come back with a “slimmed down budget for 2020 that is fiscally responsible.”
She said the budget amounts to a 14 percent increase in spending spread across the board in county operations, not just to cover bond debt. She said it will amount to a “double-whammy” for many older residents on fixed incomes, who make up 25 percent of the county’s population, given that the tax increase comes on top of an increase in their property values.
“Spend some time listening to the people who write the checks,” she said of property owners, “instead of always just taking in the echo chamber of those who are always clamoring for more spending and more taxes. Hold the line on taxes because this budget may have bee years coming, but it is not fiscally responsible.”
Cynthia Tew questioned why the county could not increase taxes gradually rather than hit taxpayers “all at one time.”
“You are hitting us,” she said. “We are your bullseye.”
A number of the speakers also criticized the commissioners for not allowing more time for public input in the process of developing a budget and then adopting it on the same night of the public hearing, which does not allow them time to consider what they have heard.
Quis acknowledged later that the county could do a better job year in terms of keeping residents informed and have public input earlier in the process.
At least one speaker, Sheriff Ronnie Fields, expressed support for Vest’s proposed budget. He thanked the commissioners for funding additional positions in public safety.
“For too long, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office has been understaffed,” he said. “This lack of personnel has affected the overall safety of Moore County citizens.”
Fields noted that a 2013 staff study showed the county desperately needed more detention center officers.
“My constant worry is that one of my employees be injured because we don’t have enough employees to safely do the job,” he said.
Quis said after Fields spoke, “Public safety is a top priority.”
After the hearing ended, Quis disputed claims that the budget is not fiscally responsible.
“Not too many frivolous dollars being spent in Carthage,” he said.
Quis said assured those in the audience and the public that everyone’s concerns have been “listened to and understood.” Like other members of the board, Quis said he heard from many people before the hearing.
“A lot of people don’t want to pay increased taxes,” he said. “A lot of people think we are not spending enough. I get pulled both ways.”