Polk commissioners explain how they can afford a revenue neutral budget

Published 10:00 pm Friday, June 9, 2017

COLUMBUS – Polk County Commissioners held a discussion this week regarding the upcoming fiscal year 2017-2018 budget and explained how the county can afford to go revenue neutral on the tax rate without including growth rate and not implement the previously agreed to two-cent tax increase to pay for the jail.

Commissioners met Monday, June 5 and held a public hearing on the budget where the only speaker was resident Michael Veatch. Veatch’s questions about the tax rate sparked a discussion amongst commissioners as to how the county essentially lowered the rate for next year.

Veatch said he had talked to county manager Marche Pittman all day about the budget and said he realizes the county is trying to predict the future in a budget but also suggested the county plan out five years at a time, like a wish list.

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Veatch said he doesn’t really understand revenue neutral and assumes it’s dictated by Raleigh but in Polk County, most towns, except Green Creek are already getting a tax break because of the recent valuation where the majority of properties decreased in value.

“I don’t think we need to be cutting taxes,” Veatch said. “I recommend leaving things the way they are. Some people got decreases (on their property values) so they will have lower taxes. You are already taking out the two cents for the jail. Who’s paying for that? Are we cutting services and why?”

Veatch also mentioned the county’s plan to purchase one-time capital expenditures next year with fund balance. Veatch said the fund balance is a rainy day fund and the money needs to be there.

Pittman said the higher expenditures to be paid out of fund balance the county will hold off on purchasing until the first of the year (halfway through the budget year) to make sure the county’s sales tax revenue is coming in as expected.

Commissioner vice chair Jake Johnson said about the situation in Green Creek, where property values significantly rose following the revaluation, he would argue decreasing the tax rate helps.

“As much as we can help,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he sees where Veatch is coming from, but a lower tax rate on a big amount means the county is helping as much as it can.

Commissioner Shane Bradley said as far as cutting services, the county is not, adding that the county is adding to its personnel. EMS will get another employee and the new jail will get 12 additional employees after the first of the year, to name a few personnel changes.

“Marche has done a great job,” Bradley said.

Commissioner Ray Gasperson explained that the county had several years where fund balance was used pretty heavily and that had to do with constructing water lines. In some years, Pittman said, the county spent $1.6 million per year on water lines.

“And that’s kind of been taken out of the equation,” Gasperson said.

Gasperson said there is some money in the budget for water line extensions that fit into the county’s extension policy but nothing like the county has spent in the past.

“I feel like we’re doing the right thing right now,” Gasperson said.

He also said the county is holding to revenue neutral on the fire departments.

Regarding the revaluation, where several residents in the Green Creek Township have pleaded with commissioners to do something about extraordinary increases in property values, Gasperson said commissioners have gone over and over how the county’s hands are often tied because of state statutes.

“But there’s one area commissioners have total control and that is setting the tax rate,” Gasperson said. “We are showing fiscal constraint.”

Veatch thanked Gasperson for reminding him of the water lines, saying he’d been trying to think all day how Pittman did the budget proposal.

Pittman said it is not just the water lines that are causing the county to absorb what could have been tax increases. He said the county is better prepared this year than in the past after refinancing some debt and rolling off some of the payments on debt.

“There are all sorts of things that have created this perfect storm to be able to do this,” said Pittman.

Gasperson said they all feel badly for those who have been terribly impacted by the revaluation, but commissioners are trying to do all they can to lessen the tax burden.

Pittman said how the next year’s budget (2018-2019) turns out as far as tax rate will depend on growth over the next year, including for property values, improvements and sales tax.

“Certainly we’re counting on growth over the next fiscal year,” said Gasperson.

Gasperson also mentioned that Polk County is normally rated as being in the lowest 25 percent of the state as far as tax rates. Pittman said Polk has one of the lowest tax rates in the region.

Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the new budget on June 19. The budget draft can be found at www.polknc.org.