Wednesday, August 4, 2021

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Commissioners adopt budget, cut tax rate by penny

Alamance County’s commissioners passed a new county budget this week that largely mirrors a spending plan which the county manager presented to them in May – with the notable exception of a 1-cent cut in the property tax rate that the commissioners have woven into the manager’s plan.

A majority of the commissioners ultimately pushed through this tax reduction on Monday after the county’s governing board spent the better part of two hours haggling over the budgetary nips and tucks needed to cover the cut. In the end, three of the five commissioners agreed to use a combination of targeted cuts to the county manager’s spending proposals and an increased allocation from the county’s financial reserves to offset the roughly $1.5 million that the county will effectively forfeit now that the property tax rate has been pared back from 67 to 66 cents for every $100 of property.

Even with this self-imposed revenue reduction, the county’s newly-approved budget is still, by all measures, the largest that Alamance County has ever adopted. It is also comes as a stark contrast to the previous year’s budget, which saw the county’s outlays go down for, perhaps, the first time in living memory as its leaders were wringing their hands over the possible financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

All told, this new spending plans calls for roughly $184.3 million in outlays from the county’s general fund, which relies on an assortment of taxes and fees to fund most of the county’s programs and services. Taken together, these expenditures come to over $16 million more than the commissioners set aside for the general fund in the spring of 2020. The new budget’s expenditures also fall barely $750,000 short of the sum that Alamance County manager Bryan Hagood had laid out in his proposed spending plan to the commissioners.

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Among the county manager’s recommendations that have found their way into the county’s new budget are a 5-percent “cost-of-living adjustment” in the salaries of sheriff’s deputies and jailers, a 2-percent cost-of-living increase for other county staff members and the possibility of an additional 2-percent “merit-based” raise for employees outside the sheriff’s sworn staff.

The new budget also includes 9 new full-time positions, including four school resource officers, revenue to pay off the debt on construction bonds that area voters approved for Alamance Community College and the Alamance-Burlington school system in 2018 and funds for capital improvements that were cut out of the county’s budget in 2020.

In the meantime, the newly-approved budget calls for a 3-cent increase in the special property tax that landowners in the Snow Camp rural fire district must pay on top of the county’s assessment.

“I want to give the taxpayers some benefit because they’re really come through for us, and they deserve at least a one cent reduction.”                 – Alamance County board of commissioners chairman John Paisley

The single biggest departure between Hagood’s proposal and the county’s newly-adopted budget is the property tax rate which the commissioners have set for the next fiscal year. The county manager, for his part, had been content to retain the county’s previous tax rate of 67 cents for every $100 of value. The county has maintained this rate since 2019, when a previous board of commissioners implemented an 8-cent tax hike in anticipation of the debt payments on the aforementioned bonds for ACC and the school system.

Although the commissioners were ultimately divided in their vote on the county’s new budget, the five member board seemed to be unanimous in its desire to trim back the property tax rate when its members sat down to discuss the county’s finances on Monday. The prevailing mood of the group was perhaps best captured by John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, during Monday’s two-hour discussion.

“I want to give the taxpayers some benefit,” Paisley declared as he enunciated his vision that evening, “because they’re really come through for us, and they deserve at least a one cent reduction.”

Paisley went on to propose a two-point plan to offset the $1,533,571 that the county would lose if it shed a penny from its existing property tax rate.

The board’s chairman recommended that half of the lost revenue could be offset by increasing the savings that the county manager had allocated to balance his proposed spending plan. Hagood had set aside $2 million from the general fund’s financial reserves with the expectation that the county actually won’t need to draw on these funds if, as in most years, the county’s revenues exceed expectations and its expenses come in below budget.

Paisley proposed augmenting the manager’s figure with another $766,786 in savings in the hope that the county will, likewise, have no need to draw on this revenue.

The board’s chairman urged his fellow commissioners to offset the rest of the tax cut’s expense through some pinpoint reductions in the general fund’s outlays.

Earlier that evening, the commissioners had asked Hagood to run though a number of scenarios involving hypothetical reductions to different parts of the budget. Based on the manager’s responses, Paisley proposed some targeted cuts to the county’s operational outlays rather than the capital funds that it distributes among the local school system, Alamance Community College, and its own departments and agencies.

The board’s chairman insisted on including the school system and community college in the operational cuts that he had proposed to the other commissioners. To this end, Paisley prompted the county manager to offer a $15,336 reduction in ACC’s proposed allocation and a roll back of $214,700 in the school system’s allowance. Hagood also suggested a cut of $331,523 in lapsed salaries at the department of social services, which he cautioned are the byproduct of high turnover that the pay raises in his proposed budget were meant to address. Meanwhile, he suggested paring back the proposed allotment to Family Abuse Services by more than half and completely eliminating a potential new outlay to Crossroads, a nonprofit group that assists victims of rape and domestic abuse, which had submitted its first request for funds from the county earlier this year.

The county manager went on to propose nixing some of his other personnel-related recommendations, including two new positions for a parks and recreation technician and a new employee in the county’s veterans services office. Paisley ultimately salvaged the veterans services post after its elimination provoked an outcry from commissioner Pam Thompson. In its place, the county manager offered a steeper cut in the lapsed salaries at social services, bringing the total reduction in that line item to $373,662.

Paisley’s proposed combination of targeted spending cuts with a measured allocation of savings ultimately clinched the support of fellow commissioners Craig Turner and Bill Lashley.
During a break in Monday’s discussion, Turner had told The Alamance News that he wanted the board to use spending reductions to pay for at least part of the proposed cut in the property tax rate. Meanwhile, Lashley put the point even more bluntly in his remarks prior to the board’s 3-to-2 vote to adopt the new budget.

“Back in my campaign, I said that the county government should not grow faster than the rate of inflation,” he recalled. “As far as this budget is concerned…I would feel comfortable going to $181,117,356. Why? Because that’s how much my community can make – that’s how much they can contribute to this process.”

“There is no way that you cannot do the veterans and not do parks and recs. I can assure you that they’re as important as anyone else in this room that’s asking for money.”           – County commissioner Pam Thompson, who voted against the budget and its tax rate reduction

But the majority’s insistence on spending reductions didn’t go over as well with commissioner Thompson or Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.
During Monday’s discussion, Thompson strenuously objected to a number of the targeted cuts that the county manager had proffered to achieve Paisley’s proposed spending reductions – particularly those that concerned new staff-level positions.

Carter, likewise, put up a stout defense of the county manager’s recommendations in his own reflections on the proposed budget. The board’s vice chairman decried the prospective reduction in ACC’s allocation, which he warned could “possibly put them in a position where we have to pull fund balance dollars out to fund their needs.” Carter also found fault with the potential cuts to the department of social services.

“I know what these cuts we’re talking about to DSS mean to children in our county,” he said. “I really struggle with that, folks, because our responsibility is to take care of the people in this community.

“We’ve spent two hours kicking around the idea of how to come up with a tax cut,” the board’s vice chairman went on to remind his fellow commissioners. “Everyone at this table would like to see our citizens get some benefit from the revenue that are coming into the county. But at the same time, we’ve got to take care of all those citizens.”

The board’s vice chairman also urged his colleagues to rely more heavily on the county’s financial reserves rather than prune the manager’s proposed outlays to cover the cost of a tax cut. He pointed out that the county is currently on track to return roughly $3 million to the general fund’s savings, or fund balance, even though it had earmarked some $3.5 million from this rainy day fund in the budget that the commissioners adopted last spring.

“For the past four years,” he added, “we have used fund balance as a plug number to balance the budget…But for the past four years, we have managed not to spend those fund balance dollars.”

The commissioners also heard some criticism before Monday’s vote from a couple of residents who felt that the proposed 1-cent tax cut didn’t go nearly far enough.

“This is a 10.2 percent increase over last year’s budget – the largest one-time increase that I have ever seen in our county. This is not a very conservative budget.”

– Former commissioner candidate Henry Vines

The tax rate that the commissioners eventually adopted didn’t seem to impress Henry Vines, a farmer from Snow Camp who has waged several unsuccessful campaigns for the board of commissioners as a Democrat. Vines, who has defected to the GOP since his latest electoral loss in 2018, encouraged the county’s currently all-Republican governing board to consider some rather drastic reductions to the $185 million in outlays that the county manager had proposed.

“This is a 10.2 percent increase over last year’s budget – the largest one-time increase that I have ever seen in our county,” Vines said during a designated public comment period that kicked off the board’s meeting on Monday. “This is not a very conservative budget.”

Vines went on to suggest a 2 cent cut to the county’s property tax rate. He was outdone, however, by area resident Sammy Moser, who insisted that a 4 cent drop in the tax rate would be in order given the 8-cent hike which taxpayers had to absorb in 2019.

“I understand that sales tax revenue is increasing, and I understand we’ve had growth in our property tax base,” Moser told the commissioners. “On the other hand, we’ve had families that have struggled over the past two years. We’ve got small businesses that have struggled.

“If we can find the means to cut it by four cents,” he added, “we could still bring in $6 million each year above what we had in revenue two years ago.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial page views on the budget and the tax rate reduction:  https://alamancenews.com/kudos-to-3-commissioners-who-remembered-who-they-represent/

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