So now we know.
For more than a year now, Moore County Manager Wayne Vest has been prepping everyone for a great disruption in the force field of local politics. Not one to be accused of undercommunicating, Vest has long warned a property tax increase would be likely for the 2019–20 budget.
And so the spending plan he delivered to the Board of Commissioners Tuesday made good on his persistent prognosticating. A 4.5-cent tax increase is baked in to his proposed budget.
“It’s a bold budget,” he said in reference to a budget that not only increases revenues but — are you sitting down for this?! — raises spending too!
“It makes a bold move. Some will say it’s not bold enough. Others will say it is too bold. I think we found the right spot.”
This is world-class spin, but then when you propose a tax hike — and higher spending — in Moore County, you better be ready to sell sell sell.
Better Than the Rest
Generally, we support Vest’s overall direction. There are plenty of places with which we can quibble on spending priorities, but broadly this budget needs to happen, and that’s because the Moore County commissioners have engaged in magical thinking for years. Even though we’ve had a healthy growth rate and seen increased demand for government service, government has been slow to respond.
Commissioners have kept the tax rate unchanged for more than 10 years. And, for the most part, they have tried for years either to reduce spending year over year or keep it flat.
That fiscal conservatism has reaped its own rewards. We enjoy little debt compared with what’s allowed. We have a high investment rating that pays dividends when we do borrow. And we have a near-perfect tax collection rate that is the envy of all.
And when you compare our property tax rate with all other North Carolina counties, we lead there as well. Moore possesses the eighth lowest property tax rate — 46.5 cents for every $100 of property value — of the 100 counties this fiscal year. Of the seven in front of us, six are small mountain counties.
But when you are a growing county like Moore, that kind of conservatism can work against you as well. Now we’re playing catch-up.
“Many of the needs go back a long time before I became county manager,” said Vest, referring to the public schools, a new courthouse and other issues. He took over the top county job in December 2012.
“A whole lot of discussions have taken place over the years. This budget brings that all into focus … This budget is great fiscal vision at least through the next revaluation.”
Keep Up or Catch Up
So what will we get with this tax hike? This year, it prioritizes public education — though the schools certainly won’t get everything they requested — public safety and human services. It adds 16 additional employees, including five new sheriff’s deputies and eight new detention center employees; funds a 2 percent raise beginning in August; and increases spending social services by almost $1 million.
The increased spending will also begin covering the debt for a few new elementary schools, including McDeeds Creek Elementary and the three elementaries for Southern Pines, Pinehurst and Aberdeen that voters overwhelmingly approved a year ago.
And money is being put into a fund to build a new courthouse, a project ordered by the state judiciary a few years ago. An architect is finishing up plans now.
So, yes, this budget does a lot of things. It has to. It’s been a long time since Moore County’s government responded to the call for greater service. It has admirably gotten by for far too long on an undersized budget.
Hey, here’s an idea: Let’s learn to keep up instead of catch up.