Board flip-flops on Burningtown fire tax increase
After weeks of meetings and deliberations among community members and the county commissioners, Macon County officially has a budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. In a vote of 3-2, the budget was put into place and will take effect on July 1. Commissioners Ron Haven and Paul Higdon opposed the budget as presented.
"I have to vote against this budget," said Haven. "There are just some things in it that sit heavy on my heart that I can't support."
For weeks now, the commissioners have met to talk with department heads about spending requests and cuts. The public was invited to attend and voice their opinions as well. In January, the commissioners directed County Manager Jack Horton and Chief Finance Officer Lori Hall to develop a balanced budget using current revenue sources with no county tax increases.
“It was a tall order with the cuts that the school system received from the state and federal governments,” said Chairman Kevin Corbin.
The proposed budget for the upcoming year will sit at $47,145,470 to start, but will likely face amendments throughout the year that will change that number. The 2012- 2013 budget that will close on June 30 will end at $48,515,476. When it was proposed, it sat at a little more than $44 million. Unexpected costs throughout the year could elevate the final total.
The upcoming year's fund balance will sit at $14,200,000, or 30 percent of the budget. Previously, Higdon had proposed lowering the fund balance to 25 percent in order to give citizens a tax decrease of around four cents.
"A lot of professionals recommend keeping the fund balance at 25 percent," he said. "Considering that ours is at 30 percent, I don't see why we can't give the citizens of Macon County a break and lower taxes in the upcoming year."
Horton pointed out that if the budget was decreased by more than $4 million, taxes would have to be raised back in the next year to pay for services that are currently offered by the county.
"If we were to do this, in three years or so we would be at a fund balance of five percent. The state requires at least eight percent," said Horton. "The only time you see governing bodies get that low is when they are in financial trouble."
Macon County has the lowest tax rate in N.C. and the fourth lowest effective tax rate. Corbin pointed to another trend as a reason to keep the tax rate the same as it has been.
"With all due respect, we said we weren't going to raise taxes despite the hardships we've seen from some departments," he said. "Now I've had people come up to me and ask why we don't just raise the tax since our schools are in such trouble, but I haven't had people coming to me complaining that we are too high at our current level."
Higdon and Haven both pledged to constituents that they would support lower taxes in the county.
The Macon County Board of Education (BOE) had requested $440,000 more than the $7.1 million that the county had previously granted, a significant decrease from the $9.6 million the school board initially requested. Realizing that teacher positions were going to be cut if an agreement could not be made, the BOE and finance officer Angie Cook whittled the budget by $914,000.
In the end, the commissioners did not meet the $440,000 request, but they did allow $220,000 to hire back some of the 32 teachers that had been let go because of the budget constraints. Positions that will be open as a result of retirement will be absorbed by the school system.
At Monday night’s meeting, incoming Superintendent Chris Baldwin and BOE Chairman Jim Breedlove were present to thank the commissioners for their consideration, but in a last ditch effort, Breedlove made one more request of the board.
“In regards to the supplement that we discussed at an earlier meeting, I think we had a consensus about the discretionary use of the funds alotted for it. If we could, I would like to get a formal vote from the commissioners to allow us the use of those funds in anticipation of things that may come up during the school year. We may need to take part of it or use it for capital outlay. We just want the ability to do that if we need to.”
The commissioners agreed with the idea of giving the BOE access to the supplemental monies and after some discussion about the procedures to allow it, permission was granted.
With the addition of these funds, the BOE’s share of the budget increased by $430,000 from the original $7.1 million granted.
One SRO approved
Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland also attended the meeting to thank the board for their hard work. He received increased funding for equipment and one additional School Resources Officer (SRO) that will be located at a school that will be decided upon after discussions with Superintendent Baldwin.
"I just want to thank you for your hard work and consideration," said Holland. "You have a hard job to do. I commend you for not raising taxes on the citizens of Macon County. I support your budget and if I didn't, I wouldn't hesitate to tell you. I work for the citizens of the county and I'll keep you in check if I have to, but I do support this budget."
Fire tax debate continues
Despite what was considered a mostly good outcome for the county schools, about 15 firefighters and community members from the Burningtown fire district had other concerns.
Last Thursday, the commissioners met to discuss budget issues before making it final. The fire tax increase requested by four of the local volunteer fire departments was a top concern. Each community has a different fire tax rate that its department uses to operate. Clarks Chapel fire department withdrew its request and the commissioners chose to allow increases for Otto and Cowee, but denied Burningtown's request of a one cent increase that would help fund a full-time fire fighter for the department.
“I can see the reasoning behind adding a paid employee,” said Higdon who represents the community. “But after talking to homeowners in Burningtown, I am just not seeing the support of a tax increase outside of members in the fire department.”
Commissioner Ronnie Beale responded in opposition to the claim made by Higdon.
“I'm not disputing what you said, but I have talked to members of the community as well and I have heard the support,” said Beale before making a motion to allow the tax increase. The vote died for lack of second.
Higdon then made the motion to deny it which was seconded by Haven.
“I respect your work Ronnie, but I also have to respect Paul as the representative of the Burningtown area. I have to support his motion,” said Corbin.
“We asked for community support and I just don't see that here tonight and out of respect for Paul, I have to support his motion as well,” said Commissioner Jimmy Tate.
The motion passed 4-1 with Beale voting against it. As a result of that decision, proponents of the increase were on hand Monday night to voice their displeasure over the denial, many of whom were members of the fire department.
Kenneth McCaskill, who has been present at every meeting where the issue was discussed, took the podium one more time.
“I'm not going to praise you and I'll tell you why. All you've done by denying this request is delay insurance rates from dropping for another year,” he said. “So I'd like to make a presentation tonight to the representative who makes the decisions apparently and lives in the Burningtown fire district. It's a book called ‘Smart Moves for People In Charge.’ I want you to read that.”
Heather Snyder followed McCaskill by presenting a petition of 80 signatures to the commissioners. Each signature was gathered between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday and they all came from members of the Burningtown and Rose Creek fire district.
“With all due respect, most of you in this room don't get up at two o'clock in the morning to go to a fire or give CPR in order to save someone's life,” said Snyder. “Most people don't leave their job at two o'clock in the afternoon to go to a call, risking losing money or even their job. Of those 80 signatures, a lot of those 80 signatures are of people who have been helped in some way by our department. They deserve good service.”
The Burningtown fire department is one of the farthest departments from the EMS home base making the argument of adding a full time employee even stronger.
“I've been dispatched to a call where I actually had to drive by the location on my way to the fire house to get a truck,” said Bill Maynard, a five-year volunteer. “Unfortunately, that gentleman passed away and I have to live with that. It still bothers me to this day.”
Eight people ended up showing their support vocally, but there were plenty more who were present, all dissatisfied by last week's vote. Before moving on with the meeting Beale asked whether the board wanted to take another vote on the increase.
“If we wanted to revisit this issue, this would be the time,” he said. “It's more than manning a fire truck. This is also about those home emergency calls that need quick attention not to mention the motorcycle wrecks every other day on Highway 28.”
As the board looked to Higdon for guidance, he offered his point of view.
“I appreciate you all coming out tonight, but last week when we voted, only Mr. McCaskill was here. I just don't think the taxpayers can support this increase, nor do I think they want it. I took an oath with my supporters when I ran and was elected to this office that I would not support the expansion of government. It's going to get to the point where taxpayers are tapped out. I talked to the community. Maybe we should have got both sides here. I do not support having a full time employee. “
“When we first met to discuss these increases, I stressed how important it was to have your community show its support,” said Tate who serves as the emergency services liaison and is also a volunteer fire fighter on the Highlands fire department. “I understand how important these things are and last week I voted against it. Now I'm on the fence.”
After consideration of the comments that were made by the public and from Higdon on behalf of the opposition, the board decided to vote on the issue again with Haven leading the way.
“Some of you probably know how tight I am when it comes to spending money, but I have always said that education and emergency services are two of the things that I support the most. With that being said, I want to make a motion that we grant the tax increase to Burningtown fire department,” he said.
Beale seconded with the motion passing 4-1, Higdon opposing.
The Burningtown fire district will now see their tax rate change from .059 to .069 per $100.