Commissioners spar over tax rate before approving budget

Property tax to remain at 72 cents after vote of 4-3
Jun. 18, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Lee County's operating budget of $65.13 million for the fiscal year 2014-2015 leaves the county's property tax at its current rate of 72 cents per $100 of valuation and contains no fee increases.

The Lee County Board of Commissioners approved the budget with a vote of 4-3 at its meeting Monday, with commissioners Robert Reives, Amy Dalrymple and Ricky Frazier voting against it.

Major changes from last year's budget include funding for 16 school resource officers, one at each county school, and the addition of a child protective services worker and a foster care social worker to the Lee County Department of Social Services.

"I am not supporting this budget for the simple reason that this is not good for Lee County," Reives said. "The budget we're offering up here today quite frankly puts us deeper in the hole than we've been in the last three years."

Reives asked the board to amend the budget to raise the property tax rate by 3 cents to 75 cents per $100 valuation in order to fund things like a cost-of-living adjustment for employees and a 1 percent increase in teacher supplements. The motion failed in a vote of 3-4, with commissioners Charlie Parks, Jim Womack, Kirk Smith and Andre Knecht opposing.

The county's rate was at 75 cents until the board voted last year to lower it by 3 cents. 

"I am probably more fiscally conservative than anyone on this board," Reives said. "I hate paying taxes...When I was at 75 cents, I didn't like that. But I liked it being there because it provided the cushion we needed to hang on. At 72 cents, I know we are in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Womack maintained that the board should be lowering taxes if anything, and that lowering the tax rate to 72 cents last year was a compromise.

"I would have taken us down to 69.5 cents," Womack said. "I was ready to go to 69.5 cents, and I think we should have gone there. I think we should have gone further south."

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said he did not believe the board or the voters had the will to do what it would take to get to 69.5 cents, saying staff and services were the only things the county had left to cut.

"We have to be very disciplined in the coming year," Crumpton said. "We don't have a lot of flexibility or discretion in adding to the budget during the year this year...We keep cutting and cutting and cutting, and, at some point, you're not going to be able to cut any further."

Smith agreed with Womack that raising taxes on the county was not the right thing to do, saying the county should be looking for other ways to build up its fund balance.

"You have taxpayers out there who have lost their health coverage," he said. "You have taxpayers out there whose gas prices and insurance rates have gone up through the roof ... and you want to raise more taxes?"

Dalrymple supported the idea that the county needed to raise its fund balance but was skeptical that any more cuts could be made without impacting employees and services.

"Being right at our minimum with our fund balance makes me nervous as all get out," she said. "But where are we going to cut? Right now, we're down to closing the Enrichment Center, closing the libraries or cutting out parks and rec ... . I do not like the idea of raising taxes on anybody, but that's why I voted against the budget last year. I felt we needed to leave it at 75 cents because of the problem we are in right now. You could see it coming."

Womack noted that only a portion of the revenue from Reives's proposed three-cent tax increase would go to restoring the county's fund balance, with the rest of it going toward a cost-of-living adjustment for county employees, a 1 percent increase in the pay supplement the county provided to teachers and the replacement of vehicles for the sheriff's office.

"You want to raise taxes, but you want [the revenue] to go out," Womack said. "It's going to come in, go out, and the hole stays."

County appointments

After it passed the budget, the board announced its appointments to various boards and commissions.

William Bates was reappointed to the Americans with Disabilities Act Committee.

Mark Cronmiller was appointed to the Central Carolina Community College Board of Trustees.

David Vann was reappointed to the Fire Advisory Board.

William Oberkirsch was appointed and James Emerson, Ed Underwood and Harry Stryffeler were reappointed to the Parks and Recreation Commission. Chad Spivey was the second alternate for the commission and was moved to first alternate. Elizabeth Kovasckitz was appointed as the second alternate to the commission.

Dr. Diane Schaller was appointed to the Board of Health.

Joe Johnson and Elizabeth Kovasckitz were reappointed to the Planning Board. William Oberkirsch and Elizabeth Oberkirsch were appointed as the first and second alternates respectively.

Mary Bristow, Evelyn Bullard and William Bates were appointed the the Rest Home-Nursing Home Advisory Board.

Elizabeth Oberkirsch was appointed to the Social Services Board.

Molly Whitaker was appointed to the Voluntary Agriculture District Board.

The board also:

  •  Approved the fire department budget ordinance for the fiscal year 2014-2015.
  • Adopted the Lee County Capital Improvements Program for the fiscal year 2014-2015 through the fiscal year 2018-2019.
  • Approved vendor agreements between DSS and Central Electric Membership Corporation, Duke Energy Progress, Hunter Oil and Propane, and PSNC Energy.
  • Renewed a DSS contract with Christian Healthcare for adult daycare services.