Southampton County proposes 5-cent tax increase

Published 11:05 am Friday, April 8, 2016

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Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson on Wednesday evening presented to the board of supervisors the draft budget for the 2017 Fiscal Year. It is projected to increase by $1,958,204 from the $55,799,534 that was allocated one year ago, thanks to a proposed increased in the real estate tax rate (from $0.77 to $0.82); vehicle license tax ($23 to $28); and water and sewer fees ($26 to $27 and $34 to $35 per month, respectively).

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“[We’re] playing catch-up,” Johnson said. “Despite the fact that there’s never a good time to raise taxes or fees, we’ve unfortunately reached a point where expected levels of service are unsustainable without additional revenue. Absent substantial growth in the tax base from new private investment and job creation, rate increases are the only means of generating additional revenue. Following several years of lean operating budgets and utilization of capital project reserves, we’re forced to play catch-up.”

Of the proposed budget increase, $1,386,133 (71 percent) is earmarked for the Southampton County Public School District. It is still $571,000 less than the school board requested from the supervisors last month.

“The proposed increase won’t resolve all the issues, but is a step in the right direction and should allow the school board to begin addressing lagging faculty and staff salaries, replace some of the teaching positions and instructional programs that were casualties of past budget cycles and provide some additional technology resources,” Johnson said.

The school board was seeking $30,049,018 — a 6.67 percent increase from the amount it received last year — to help fund the hiring of nine teachers, two specialists, two custodians, an athletic trainer, a guidance counselor and a librarian, in addition to its normal operating budget. The additional funds will also help with facility upgrades at Capron and Riverdale elementary schools and Southampton Middle School.

“[This presentation] is a report of our needs,” school board vice chairman Jim Pope, who chairs the school’s budget committee, said at last month’s adoption of the budget request. “As always, our goal is to provide a quality education for the students of Southampton County.”

The remainder of the proposed budget increase ($572,071) will expedite the initiation of the state-mandated real property reassessment; the county’s classification and compensation plan; and the fixed asset valuation report, which is the next step in detemining whether the creation of a joint water and sewer service authority with the City of Franklin is in the locality’s best interest. It will also cover the escalating costs of contractual emergency medical services.

“As always, we have needs in the county, [which includes] the school system and the study of how county employees are paid compared to other counties,” said supervisor Bruce Phillips, Capron District. “We are facing a new contract with [Southeastern Public Service Authority], but I would urge people to understand that we’re not going to see the benefits — or lower rates — until January 2018.

“With all of the items — the schools at the top of the list — the revenue coming into the county has to increase as the demands do,” Phillips continued. “We need to make Southampton County open for business.”

Supervisor Barry Porter, Franklin-Hunterdale District, added that, “[the draft] is the first step. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but this shows the challenges we’re facing. It doesn’t address everything requested, but it points out even more that we need to be more aggressive to avoid the tax increase. In no way can we go on this way.”

The next budget work session is scheduled for Wednesday, April 13, at 6:30 p.m. in the Southampton County Administration Building. A public hearing will be held on Monday, May 16, at 7 p.m. at Southampton High School, while the budget adoption will be part of the regularly scheduled Monday, May 23, supervisors meeting.

“This is the toughest budget we’ve had in years,” Porter said. “Unless we do something along the lines of bringing in more businesses, it’s going to double the tax rate in the next 10 years. We’re going to work through this and do what’s best for everyone. But, this is a wake-up call.”