County debates how to close $1.85M gap

Published 8:26 am Wednesday, April 28, 2010

COURTLAND—A debate over the best method to close a $1.85 million gap between the county’s incoming revenue and its expenses broke out among Southampton County supervisors on Monday.

Shortly after County Administrator Mike Johnson unveiled options that, if enacted collectively, would close the gap, at least two board members raised the possibility of suspending or scaling back the county’s land-use program as an alternative to further budget cuts or tax hikes.

Options presented by Johnson include allocating an additional $300,000 from the county’s general reserve fund, a 50-cent increase in the personal property tax rate, an additional one-cent increase in the real estate tax rate and further budget cuts totaling $863,437.

The county’s draft budget already calls for allocating $551,336 from the general reserve fund. Johnson said that if an additional $300,000 was withdrawn, the reserve fund’s balance could fall to about $2.7 million at the end of the 2011 fiscal year. He added that the board might have to consider enacting semiannual tax collection to help with cash flow and to bolster the reserve fund.

Johnson said a 50-cent increase in the personal property tax rate would net an additional $545,036 in revenue. The tax hike would cost the owner of a $15,000 vehicle an additional $75 in taxes every year, and the owner of a $30,000 car would pay an additional $150 a year. With the increase, the county would collect more than $6.1 million a year in personal property tax revenue.

The county already plans to raise the real estate tax rate by three cents, to 75 cents per $100 of assessed value, for the 2011 fiscal year. According to Johnson, an additional one-cent increase would net an additional $142,010 in revenue. If enacted, real estate taxes would go up $15 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $150,000, and $100 more a year for the owner of a farm assessed at $1 million. The county would collect more than $10.5 million in real estate taxes if the additional increase were enacted.

Johnson said additional expense reductions in county government, if distributed evenly, would represent further cuts of 1.78 percent. Those cuts would mean $524,020 less for schools, $249,274 less for the general fund, $45,935 less for the enterprise fund and a $44,208 cut in social services.

Newsoms District Supervisor Walt Brown called the additional cuts unworkable.

“From my perspective, there’s no way we’re going to ever be able to do this,” Brown said. “I know we’re in tough times. Everybody needs to kick in their own fair share pertaining to this until we can get well.”

Brown added, “I know a bunch of my constituents are going to get angry with me,” before asking Johnson how much the real estate tax rate would be reduced if the county were to temporarily suspend the land use program and reduce taxes to the point where an additional $1 million would be generated.

“If you were to do away with the land use program, which I’m not recommending, you could cover your gap,” Johnson said. “(That would be) with no increase in the real estate rate, no increase in the personal property rate, no additional money from the reserve, and still have about $500,000 left over that you can either reduce your (real estate tax) rate by the equivalent of three cents or do something different.”

The land use program, which was designed to help preserve real estate in Southampton for agricultural and forested use, was enacted in 2005 and took effect in 2006. Johnson told the board Monday that land use results in a net reduction in real estate tax revenue of more than $2.35 million.

Boykins-Branchville District Supervisor Carl Faison concurred with Brown.

“These are unprecedented times, so we need to look at unprecedented methods,” Faison said. “We’ve got to maintain the progress that this county has made. If we were to terminate land use today, there would be nothing that would prevent us from bringing it back at a future time. But if we allow all of these things to be affected, I think we’re putting the county in a worse position.”

But at least two supervisors bristled at the suggestion of ending the land use program.

“I will not vote for that,” Berlin-Ivor District Supervisor Ronald West said. “My conscience won’t allow me to do that. This budget goes equally the fairest distribution of hurt, of pain. There’s no way I can say land use needs to be taken out and then maybe reinstated next year. No way. How can you give today and take back tomorrow? That’s never government’s right to do that.”

Said Jerusalem District Supervisor Anita Felts: “I just can’t see doing away with land use. We did a lot of research and studying and made that decision. I don’t want to see the schools cut. It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”

The board will try to come to an agreement on the draft budget, which currently totals $53,263,570, during a work session at 6:30 p.m. today in the board room of the county’s administration building at 26022 Administration Center Drive in Courtland. The work session is open to the public.

A public hearing has been scheduled for 7 p.m. May 17 and an additional work session may be held at 6:30 p.m. May 19 to consider suggestions from the public hearing.