Higher taxes on farms?

Published 10:04 am Friday, March 16, 2012

COURTLAND—A Southampton County School Board member suggested giving less of a discount on real estate taxes for farmers and others who own large tracts of land to help balance the county’s 2012-13 budget.

“You may want to start there,” School Board member Florence Reynolds said after learning the county faces a $2.1 million deficit during a Wednesday joint meeting of the School Board and Board of Supervisors.

Southampton County is one of 74 counties among the state’s 95 that offers the land-use tax. Farmland of more than five acres and forestland of more than 20 acres qualify. More than 2,300 properties are enrolled.

Under the program, the owner of a 249-acre farm with cropland pays $1,167. Without the program, that same farmer would pay $4,669 and the county would make an additional $2.6 million from property taxes.

“Farming is the savior for this county,” said Berlin-Ivor District Supervisor Ronnie West. Newsoms Supervisor Glenn Updike suggested cutting costs.

“Every operation of government will need to be cut,” Updike said. “I will not vote for any tax increase. We have a lot of unnecessary spending.”

County Administrator Mike Johnson noted that preliminary figures show the county faces a $1.53 million shortfall without the school district’s request for an additional $645,598, which puts the deficit at $2.1 million.

The school district initially faced a $2.8 million deficit, but reduced the amount to $645,598 without any layoffs or elimination of programs, said Superintendent Charles Turner.

Turner said it could be done by not filling 16 vacancies created by resignations and retirements, of which 10 are teaching positions, and funding 32 positions with $451,000 in federal jobs money.

“We came down quite a significant amount,” he said. “If we get more funding from the state, the $645,000 could come down. I’m delighted we could come down to this point. We were in a deep, deep hole.”

Turner noted that 62 percent of the school’s spending plan is for instruction followed by 12 percent for maintenance. The administration costs 3 percent, which is the statewide norm.

Johnson noted that the county gets $27 million in local revenue for its budget, of which $11 million goes to the school district.

Supervisor Barry Porter noted that raising taxes to balance the budget, which the county will introduce on April 24, is not the answer.

“When we went to Richmond in January (for training), I didn’t speak to anyone with a tax rate higher than the 50s,” Porter said.

Southampton County’s rate is 77 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value.