County mulls measures to lower property taxes

Tax distribution change, cuts included in strategy
Mar. 16, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Through a combination of cuts and a change in the sales tax distribution method, Lee County Commissioners aim to lower the property tax rate by at least three — possibly four — cents during the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Commissioners met to review the county's current finances, discuss changing the sales tax distribution from the current per capita method to ad valorem and determine their goals for the upcoming fiscal year during a budget workshop Friday at the Dennis A Wicker Civic Center.

With Commissioners Charlie Parks, Kirk Smith, Andrew Knecht and Jim Womack signaling their intent to change the sales tax distribution method — boosting the county's revenue by $1.4 million, but causing drops of $1.3 million and $100,000 for the city of Sanford and town of Broadway, respectively — during the meeting Friday, Lee County Manager John Crumpton suggested lowering the county's property tax rate by two cents, with the remaining difference being placed in reserve for capital projects. The rate could be lowered by two more pennies by ending an interlocal agreement with the Lee County Board of Education and making other cuts within the county, Crumpton said.

"I am still convinced that the best thing and most important thing we can do, after we accommodate our constitutional requirements to secure and safeguard our community and educate our community, is to give tax relief to our people," Womack said. "It's the most important thing we control and mange."

The change, if enacted, would lower the property tax rate from 75 cents per $100 valuation to 71 cents per $100 valuation — saving a resident $60 in property taxes for a home valued at $150,000.

Commissioners Robert Reives, Amy Dalrymple and Ricky Frazier advocated keeping the sales tax distribution method the same because of the impacts to Broadway and Sanford. To remain revenue neutral, Sanford would have to increase its property tax rate by six cents, or cut the equivalent spending, and Broadway would have to increase its property tax rate by an estimated 12 cents or cut costs.

Dalrmyple said she doesn't want to change the sales tax distribution because of the animosity it can create among the three governing bodies.

"Everyone I am talking to doesn't think it's worth the angst," she said, "especially with Broadway."

Smith said the commissioners intend to challenge the status quo, and people will always protest when things change.

"Whenever someone talks about a tax cut or reducing spending, the first thing a governmental body does is threaten law enforcement," Smith said. "In the meantime, you still have a golf course, you give money to the [Temple Theatre], you still hand out money to all these wonderful, nice-to-have things that not everybody in this county utilizes."  

The commissioners can't officially vote to change the sales tax distribution method until April under state law, but wanted to direct Crumpton on how to construct the budget without waiting.

"We need to send a signal to our staff," Dalrymple said, "and not just our staff, but also to Sanford and Broadway as well. They are working on their budgets, and out of respect to them, we don't need to leave them over the barrel longer than we have to."

Ending an interlocal agreement with the Lee County Board of Education, which provided $500,000 for teaching assistant positions, tutors and graduation ambassadors during the past two fiscal budget years, was discussed as a cut during the upcoming fiscal year. As many as 15 elementary school teaching assistants and a "substantial" amount of tutors will be at risk if the agreement ends, said Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss.

"If all other funding sources at the state and federal level remain the same, those positions will have to be removed," he said.

Moss said he was hopeful the agreement with the commissioners would be renewed.