DOBSON — County taxpayers should see their property tax paid to the county stay the same, but could there be increases for other taxes?
With only one scheduled meeting left before the end of the fiscal year, Monday’s 6 p.m. meeting likely will see the Surry County Board of Commissioners vote on a 2018-19 budget.
However, there are still some details to work out, and public hearings to be held, before then.
Folks will be allowed to speak during three different sessions, likely with directions to keep comments to just one topic at a time. The public hearings will be for proposed increases to fire district taxes, proposed supplemental tax increases for schools, and then a general overall budget discussion.
A couple of years ago the idea was raised of paying people to staff the volunteer fire departments, Chairman Eddie Harris reminded the board.
“We originally were told the departments were going to do this on their own,” Harris said, and that the decision had nothing to do with the county government. Now several fire chiefs are specifically mentioning a desire to pay part-time help as a reason to raise the fire tax in their districts.
“I don’t think some of the fire departments realize the seriousness of raising taxes,” he said.
Firefighters perform a valuable service and do their best, so they deserve the best equipment and trucks, he added, but that has to be balanced with what the taxpayers can afford. There is a validity of wants versus needs.
Commissioner Larry Johnson, who has been meeting with the fire departments in recent months, said all of the fire chiefs who have asked for an increase are either working to raise their ISO levels or have already accomplished raising the ISO. A better rating means cheaper homeowners insurance premiums, which will save as much money or more than the tax increase.
The fire departments do a great job, so the board could make a good argument to give them an increase every year, said Commissioner Larry Phillips. Where does the board draw the line. He said he doesn’t mind asking some hard questions to be a good ward of public tax dollars.
Harris said he will hold his decision until he hears from the constituents at Monday’s public hearing.
Commissioner Van Tucker said he agrees with Johnson on ISO ratings saving money. Still, he said that he has no idea what valid arguments the public might have against raising rates, so he, too, will wait until Monday to make up his mind.
Tucker added that he had heard from Shoals, and the department has been crunching its numbers and has decided not to ask for any increase this year.
Then he said that something that seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago has been causing a lot of problems.
Knowing that the departments had some large expenditures that come up from time to time — like replacing outdated equipment — the board established a one-time $50,000 grant to go to one location.
Tucker said he has gotten a lot of calls from firefighters about this grant, and it has created a lot of tension and unintended hard feelings. If a department has an emergency come up, he said he feels sure this board would jump in and help out, but he isn’t in favor of keeping around this grant idea.
The biggest expense for the county each year is school funding, so it’s no surprise it took the most time to discuss Thursday.
First the board approved $100,000 to install lighting at Crater Park in Elkin where the Elkin High softball team plays its home games.
It will also be open to the public, and the people of Elkin will be using it, too, noted Johnson. Perhaps there should be some sort of split with city like the way Mount Airy officials chipped in on upkeep at the Mount Airy High School tennis courts that are open to the public.
The town has neither an extensive budget nor the revenue stream of Mount Airy, said Harris, who represents the Elkin district. The city has infrastructure needs with water and sewer.
Mount Airy is bigger and has a lot more moving parts, so groups come to the county for funding more often, said Phillips, so he doesn’t have a problem with helping Elkin with this problem.
Tucker said he agrees with the idea of having participation by the city, but since this is a Title IX issue with a girls’ sports team needing equal lighting needs with boys’ facilities, he will go along with Harris and Phillips on funding the full amount.
As for operational funding, the recommended budget from the county manager lists $1,150 per student.
Last year the rate was $1,115. Surry County Schools argued that because of a drop in enrollment, the district needed a per-pupil rate of $1,143 just to break evem in 2017-18. The board agreed at that time to a rate of $1,140. That wasn’t quite enough to meet the county schools’ request, but it did amount to a small increase for both city systems.
Mount Airy City Schools saw its allotment go up $19,000 because it only dropped 17 students in average daily membership (ADM) compared to a couple of hundred for the county. Elkin City Schools went up $11,400.
On top of that, both districts got a one-cent increase in supplemental tax rate.
According to a handout from Finance Director Sarah Bowen, one cent is worth about $69,089 in Mount Airy and about $72,929 in Elkin.
Now, both cities are asking for another cent increase. If that were approved, then someone living on a $150,000 piece of property would be paying about $1,773 in Mount Airy or $1,911 in Elkin every year in supplemental tax.
According to Harrs, Surry County Schools (which doesn’t receive a supplemental tax payment) has said it needs at least $1,160 to keep up its current level of funding because of further drops in ADM.
County Manager Chris Knopf didn’t recommend such an increase in his budget plan, but half the increase from $1,140 to $1,150.
At a board meeting in April, MACS said it was up 45 kids in ADM in the current year. With increased enrollment and a higher per-pupil rate, the city schools would be up significantly even without a supplemental rate increase.
At Knopf’s recommended $1,150, Mount Airy could see funding of $1,875,650, which would be $88,130 more than in the current year.
Johnson and Phillips represent Mount Airy, and neither showed support for a school tax increase.
Johnson said he wouldn’t be in favor of raising a tax. Phillips said that he felt like the board pulled the trigger too quickly last year to raise school taxes.
In fact, Phillips put the others on notice that he won’t vote Monday night for any budget that has an increase in taxes — whether it is property tax or school supplemental tax.
As for Elkin, the commissioners are concerned that out-of-county students may not be paying their fair share toward school costs.
The ADM in Elkin is about 1,180 students, but the Surry County portion of that is 913, leaving about 270 kids coming from neighboring areas like Wilkes and Yadkin counties.
The folks who live in Elkin are paying taxes that fund the ADM rate per child of $1,150 (proposed), a capital expenditure amount of $110 per kid and the direct supplemental tax rate (which would be $1,911 for a $150,000 home). Add those together, and it comes to more than what the schools charge for out-of-county tuition (which one of them said is a few hundred dollars).
Commissioner Gary Tilley, who was appointed just this spring, had been quiet during most of the discussion. He said he doesn’t have a problem with Mount Airy’s elected school board making a decision to raise the tax rate. As Van Tucker said last year, if the public doesn’t like it, the people can vote for a new school board.
However, Tilley didn’t believe it was fair that the county schools hasn’t had a similar supplemental fund. He showed some printout of state statutes that showed that the county school board could petition the commissioners for a referendum on the matter. Then it could go before a vote of the people on a November ballot.
Johnson went just the opposite direction and said perhaps Mount Airy and Elkin should have a re-vote to see if they still want to keep their supplemental tax. He said he has heard from constituents who weren’t even born yet when the city voted in a school tax, and yet they still have to pay this fee each year.
Phillips said he could actually see lending his support to a county-wide referendum so that people in all three districts get a chance to voice their opinions on the matter.
First, though, the board will allow a public hearing on the tax rates Monday evening at 6 p.m. so that people can let the board know how they feel about the fire and school tax rates.
In the final school matter of the night, the board heard a request from the county schools for a one-time $450,000 supplemental request. While that amount would be equal to half what Mount Airy or Elkin receives in their special taxes, the board said that was too much for the budget to afford.
After rearranging some economic development funds, the commissioners did agree on a $200,000 supplement.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.