DOBSON — The county manager doesn’t expect to need an increase in property tax, but a couple of other areas could see an increase in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Chris Knopf presented the Surry County Board of Commissioners with his preliminary budget at Monday’s regular meeting. The plan calls for leaving the property tax rate at 58.2 cents per $100 of valued property with a total figure of $78,495,954.
As part of his presentation, Knopf showed the budget trend over the past decade.
In 2008, before realizing they were in the start of a recession, county commissioners approved a budget of $79.13 million. That number would drop over the next four years to $70.5 million. Over the past five budgets, the figure has risen, hitting $77.2 million in the current year with $78.5 recommended this year.
While the county manager’s recommendation calls for leaving property taxes alone, people could spend a little more if the county board approves his ideas.
• First, several volunteer fire departments have asked for a district tax increase: Bannertown (1 cent), CC Camp (2 cents), Four Way (2 cents), Franklin (1.3 cents), Shoals (1 cent), Skull Camp (1.3 cents), South Surry (1.5 cents) and Westfield (2 cents). The board is planning to have a discussion on this matter at a workshop next week.
• Second, both city school districts are asking for an increase in local supplemental tax. Mount Airy City Schools has a tax rate of 11 cents, and Elkin is at 13.2 cents, Knopf noted. Both are asking for a full penny increase.
• Third, expenses for disposal/recycling of electronic devices, such as TVs and laptops, at the landfill have created an unexpected bill in a fund that is supposed to be self-supporting.
Last year, the landfill didn’t have any additional expense in the budget related to electronic equipment, but when Knopf asked department heads for expenses, a figure of $38,117 showed up for disposal. And it was estimated that this could his $75,000 by the end of the fiscal year June 30.
Knopf suggested planning for $90,000 toward this fee next year and proposed increasing the landfill fee from $39 to $42 to raise this extra funding.
• Water and sewer rates will go up in a couple of areas where the county has helped with special projects.
Knopf said the board discussed rates a couple of years ago for both the Flat Rock-Bannertown and Elkin-Gentry Road special projects. The commissioners knew that the rates had to go up to cover cost, but chose to do so incrementally over five years. He recommended a 7-percent increase this year.
The county must hold a public hearing each year to give the public a chance to weigh in on the budget proposal. That will happen June 18 before the commissioners vote on a finalized plan.
Commissioner Van Tucker said he learned from talking to his counterparts from other counties that they hold public hearings if there is to be a change in fire tax rate, too.
“You know what, they raise a significant point,” said Tucker. “I think sunshine on any cloudy issue is good.”
These rural fire departments are staffed by volunteers, Tucker noted, but “they’re not going to be volunteers forever.” He noted that the issue driving these tax-increase requests is the need for help.
A public hearing would allow these fire chiefs to explain to the people what the money is going forward, he said. The board agreed and voted in favor of another public hearing on June 18 just for fire districts.
In that case, asked Commissioner Larry Johnson, should the county also have a public hearing that night to discuss the tax rates for Elkin and Mount Airy schools?
That’s not a bad idea, said Chairman Eddie Harris. Elkin held a community forum to discuss the matter last year, but there was no county hearing.
And the board voted its approval of a third public hearing for June 18.
In creating a budget, Knopf said priority went to mandated programs like education, public safety, health and social services, and debt service. Funds were recommended to finish projects that are underway over new ones.
“My goal was to recommend a budget that should enable the delivery of public services without significant hardship or interruption, and at minimum cost,” he told the board.
Among the points of interest he shared with the commissioners include:
• A payment of $1.7 million on a school project, which he explained was the renovation of the former Pike Electric building into a central office for Mount Airy City Schools and other community needs.
• Another $3 million in capital requests from the three public school systems for renovations at Mount Airy High, Jones Intermediate, East Surry, Meadowview Middle and Elkin Elementary schools as well as the county school bus garage.
• About $459,000 for an HVAC system project at Surry Community College.
• Spending for schools on a per-student basis could go up from $1,140 to $1,150, but the capital-outlay amount would stay at $110 per child.
• Budgeting $112,345 to create an Opioid Response Initiative.
• Spending $465,000 for new voting equipment as required by the state.
• Almost $555,000 will go toward vehicles for public safety: three ambulances, six patrol cars, two animal-control vehicles and a detention transport.
• About $430,000 will go toward economic development with $250,000 earmarked for a shell building for Elkin, $155,000 as the county’s contribution to the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, and $25,000 for the Dobson public water project.
• Community development has $479,000 planned for the Northwestern Regional Library system, $20,000 for the Elkin Valley Trails Association, $11,115 for the Surry Arts Council, and $5,985 for the Foothills Arts Council in Elkin.
• Knopf would like a 1.5-percent cost-of-living increase across the board for county employees. He said last year the cost-of-living raise was 2.0 percent.
Harris said he was talking to some officials from Wilkes County and learned that Surry’s tax rate is nearly a dime less than its neighbor. He said this shows prudent fiscal responsibility and strong sales tax collections.
The newest commissioner, Dr. Gary Tilley, said he was pleasantly surprised by a chart that Knopf included in his budget about Surry’s tax levy on a per-person basis.
The average person in Surry spends $370 a year on property taxes, compared to $440 in Alleghany, $524 in Wilkes, $593 in Stokes and $701 in Yadkin counties, Tilley said.
Tucker, the vice chairman, said he has been on the board just two and a half years, but he already has seen big jumps in some expenses such as the cost of housing prisoners outside Surry County because the jail doesn’t have enough capacity.
There are unfunded mandates from the state and/or federal government related to jail conditions or the health department that falls upon local taxpayers to fund, he said. Yet despite all that, the county has managed to keep the tax rate as steady as possible, stretching the pennies as far as they can go.
“Which becomes harder and harder to do when you want to pay your employees a living wage,” added Harris.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.