Despite pleas from 37 speakers and unusually large turnout during three public hearings over the past two weeks, the Board of Commissioners voted to raise property taxes anyway.
County property taxes will go up 23.74 percent after the BOC’s 3-2 vote Tuesday to increase the millage rate from 9.9 mills to 12.25 mills.
The vote was along party lines, with all three Republican commissioners – Chairman Tom Worthan and district commissioners Mike Mulcare and Ann Jones Guider – voting for the tax increase. Democrats Henry Mitchell and Kelly Robinson voted against the tax increase.
Close to 70 people piled into the courthouse for Tuesday’s public hearing and 10 of them spoke. More than 100 people, including 27 speakers, were present during the first two public hearings on July 9.
Winston-resident Roy Sparks told the commissioners Tuesday before the vote that the process reminded him of an old song by Hank Williams, Jr – “It’s all over but the crying.”
“You have the power of the vote today,” Sparks said. “But keep in mind, the power of the vote is going to be back in our hands in the future.”
The BOC had been considering raising the millage rate to 12.9 mills, an increase of nearly 30 percent.
But after public outcry at the first two public hearings, Jennifer Hallman, the county’s finance director, recommended the board go with a millage rate of 12.25 mills.
“We feel like that’s the minimum that we could go in order to maintain this budget,” said Hallman.
Worthan told the Sentinel two weeks ago “we’re taking a look at every expenditure that comes through the courthouse, and we’re going to cut anything that’s not mandatory.”
Retired educator Bill Foster challenged Worthan to name some cuts that were made since the first two public hearings.
Worthan said money had been cut from the contingency fund for emergencies, but didn’t list an amount.
After the meeting, Hallman said $1.7 million had originally been allotted to for the contingency fund, but that had been cut back to about $1 million.
One other item Hallman said was over-budgeted was the amount for utilities at the jail. The county anticipated spending $420,000 more this year because of the move to a larger facility. But Hallman said that number is likely to be closer to $200,000.
She said the estimated $900,000 in savings from the cuts in the contingency fund and jail utilities was put toward lessening the amount of the tax increase.
On the revenue side, Hallman said the county was able to add funds to its balance sheet by changing the projected property tax collection rate from 86 to 89 percent and by using the actual decline in the tax digest of 1.47 percent rather than the 4 percent decline predicted when the 2013 budget was set by the BOC last December.
The end game for homeowners from Tuesday’s vote to raise taxes is a $103.40 increase on a homesteaded home, valued at $125,000. A property owner of a house valued at $125,000 where they do not reside will see a $117.50 increase.
That’s no chump change for the folks that have attended the public hearings and townhalls held by commissioners since the debate started.
Lewis Shaeffer is a former United States Marine who told the commissioners Tuesday he hasn’t had a stable job in three years.
He said the house at the end of his street is renting for more than his mortgage payment.
“I’m about to lose the house,” Shaeffer said. If you raise my taxes, where will I go? If I can’t afford the mortgage, who will I rent from? Or let me say it this way: Which one of the commissioners’ front yards will I camp out in?”
Chris Baggett, a local chiropractor, questioned the county’s spending.
“The problem has to be a spending problem somehow in my mind for us to have to raise it that substantially,” said Baggett.
When it came time to vote, Jones made the motion to adopt the rate of 12.25 mills and Mulcare seconded the motion.
Jones and Mitchell both voted against the budget when it passed last December. That budget was based on a tax increase of 3 mills.
Mitchell was consistent in also voting against the tax increase. He said he would have preferred to put improvements like road resurfacing, improvements to parks and public safety improvements on a bond referendum. That way, he said, if the voters want more services, they could have made that choice knowing there would be a property tax increase associated with it.
Guider had a different explanation for why she voted against the budget but voted for a tax increase.
“I had to take off the budget hat and say OK we’re going to pay our bills,” she said.
Commissioner Kelly Robinson voted for the budget but surprised many when he voted against the increase.
Robinson gave a nine-minute speech at the public hearing where he stressed that one of his main concerns is economic development.
Afterwards, he said he made up his mind during the meeting and that his decision was based on what he sees as too much of the budget going to public safety. About 46 percent of the $90 million budget is spent on public safety.
“It’s about having a more balanced spread of need,” said Robinson. “We’re per capita too heavy in one (area) and we’re light in all of these others. There are other needs in the county.”