County leaders plan to modify its timeline for adopting a fiscal year 2021 budget in response to public concerns about how it was handled last year.
Last year, county commissioners held a required public hearing and adopted the budget on the same night, which did not sit well with some members of the public who spoke at the hearing and also shared their concerns in emails and phone calls to commissioners.
County Manager Wayne Vest said during the Board of Commissioners winter work session on Wednesday that they “heard quite a bit of concern from the public about needing more time to look at the budget and decipher it, and give the commissioners more time to hear from them.”
He presented his recommended budget to the board at its meeting two weeks before the hearing.
This year, Vest told commissioners that he would like to present his recommended budget to them at their May 5. A pubic would then be held at the May 19 meeting.
Commissioners would then vote on adopting the budget at either their June 2 or June 16 meetings, under a proposed schedule Vest presented. Two work sessions, which are open to the public, could be held between when the hearing is held and when the board adopts the budget. In addition, Vest said a work session will be held in April to review preliminary budget information. That would also give the public a glimpse of how things look ahead of the formal presentation, and even give them an opportunity to offer input to commissioners.
Several speakers said during the public hearing last year that the public should be involved earlier in the process.
Commissioners will vote on adopting the revised budget schedule at its meeting next Tuesday.
Vest noted that the county may have to make last-minute adjustments depending on what the General Assembly does that could “have a significant impact” on the county budget.
“Things could change,” Vest said.
Vest said this timeline would give the commissioners more time to consider the public input. He also noted that commissioners have expressed desires about holding more work sessions.
Commissioner Louis Gregory agreed that the process should be “very transparent” and that there are ample opportunities for the public to have input and ask questions “so they know what is going on.”
“We want the public to be involved in the process,” he said. “If you look at a budget, what are we really talking about? It’s the taxpayers’ money that we are spending. They should have a right to be able to have a clear understanding as to how we are spending their money.”
As for the budget itself, Vest said he “does not see a need” to increase any of the taxes levied by the county next year. But he acknowledged that there will be “a lot of pressures” on county revenues in the coming years.
“There will be a lot of opportunities for discussion,” Vest said.
In addition to the property tax rate, the county levies an Advanced Life Support (ALS) tax to fund its paramedic level ambulance system that all property owners pay and the unified fire tax, which is paid by those living outside of one of the 11 municipalities.
Commissioners voted last June to raise the property tax rate by 4.5 cents to 51 cents for each $100 of value, in part to fund the increased debt service on $123 million on voter approved bonds to build three elementary schools and a health education center at Sandhills Community, as well as other county needs such as public safety and social services.
It was the first county tax increase in a decade. And it came on top of a revaluation in which most residents saw their property values go up. That made it an even larger tax increase for many of them.
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 have put the tax rate at 44.23 cents.
Vest said in his budget message last year that the 51-cent rate should be sufficient to meet the county’s needs for the next four year until the next property revaluation, based on expected growth in the tax base.
“Of course we know we have some pressures on our budget,” Vest said. “It costs more just to maintain what we have now.”
He said the county will also have to “closely monitor” what the General Assembly does when it goes back into session to work on its budget. He noted for example that an increase in rates by the state pension system, which includes county employees, will amount to an additional $400,000 increase in the county budget.
In his budget outlook presentation, Vest said the county is projecting 2 percent to 2.5 percent growth in the property tax base next year, which would amount to about $1.38 million to $1.68 million in new revenue.
A penny on the tax rate, with the growth factored in, would generate $1.371 million to $1.378 million, according to Vest’s presentation.
Vest said the county will have a better feel by March or April on projections for sales tax revenues. The county received $4.8 million for the first quarter of the current fiscal year.
In addition, voters approved a referendum on a quarter-cent increase in the local option sales tax in 2018. The commissioners pledged to use all of the money solely for school construction purposes, which includes repaying bond debt. The county began levying that tax in April 2019.
Vest said the county has allocated $2.8 million from the tax revenues for the debt payments on the three-bond financed elementary schools as well as McDeeds Creek Elementary, which the county is financing through a traditional bank loan.
He said that based on collections for the first two and a half quarters, which are averaging about $336,000 a month, it could bring in an additional $800,000 for school capital needs.
Commissioners heard a presentation from school officials on its capital needs and current projects following the budget outlook.
The ALS tax is currently 4 cents for each $100 of value. It was increased by a penny to the current rate in fiscal year 2018-2019.
Commissioner Otis Ritter noted that when voters approved a referendum authorizing the county to levy the tax, it could be up to 5 cents.
“I think that says something about how we are operating it,” he said.
Vest added that the system’s revenues and reserves are “strong,” but he added that having to purchase a new ambulance would be expensive.
The countywide fire tax is currently 9.5 cents for each $100 of property value.
The unified tax was established in fiscal year 2015-2016 — replacing ones levied in 16 individual fire districts that ranged from 4 cents for Seven Lakes to 11.1 cents for Crains Creek. It was set at 8 cents and was to be increased in half-cent increments to reach full funding at 10.5 cents. But commissioners decided two years ago to leave it at 9.5 cents.
Vest said Wednesday that while he does not think the county will have to increase the rate, it will have to wait and see the Fire Commission’s proposed budget.
He said at the outset of the work session Wednesday that the county had “a great year” in the previous fiscal year and that its “strong fiscal policy and strong financial standing” resulted in upgrades in its bond rating, which enabled it to attract lower interest rates.
“That has a huge impact when we go to sell bonds,” he said
He added that the county is “one-step away” from achieving a AAA rating.
Vest said the winter work session serves as the kickoff for the budget development process. He said the budget task force has already received some preliminary information and that “we are hitting the ground running.”
Board Chairman Frank Quis noted at the conclusion of the daylong session that many of the pressures on the budget are the result of the county’s strong growth.
“It’s great to live in a county like Moore County,” Quis said. “People are moving here … and they are moving here in increasing numbers. All you need to do is just get on the highways and drive around. It is the result of our success. So it is incumbent on us to do what we can now to plan for the future.”
Commissioner Catherine Graham, added, “It’s going to be a busy year for all of us, but I think we are quite up for it.”
Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.