“To attain revenue neutral for Ashe County, commissioners could have dropped the rate from 42.5 cents to 41 cents. The commissioners chose not to drop it to 41 cents but to drop it to 40. By virtue of doing that, they have saved the taxpayers of Ashe County a little less than $400,000 dollars in taxes this coming year and you were able to do it by reducing less than what revenue neutral is. I hope the citizens understand what they have done to reduce the tax value that is placed on them by almost $400,000 this past year,” said Ashe County Manager Dan McMillan.
“We went through this budget, looking at it and time and time again. Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect but neither are we. We’ve taken all the requests, we’ve taken what we have best guessed, and it is a best guess, what we will receive this coming year. We have tried our best to fulfill the needs of Ashe County,” said Commissioner Larry Rhodes.
The new budget sets the ad valorem tax rate at 40 cents, fire tax rate in Creston at 3.4 cents, Fleetwood at 4 cents, Glendale Springs at 3 cents, Lansing at 2.6 cents, Warrensville at 4.8 cents, Jefferson at 2.9 cents, New River at 4.0 cents, West jefferson at 1.7 cents, Laurel Springs at 4.0 cents, Pond Mountain at 5 cents, Todd at 7 cents, and Deep Gap at 4 cents. Solid waste disposal fees will remain at $77 for household, commercial will be at $62 per ton, industrial at $52 per ton, and LCID will be at $42 per ton.
Over the course of several working sessions beginning earlier this month, county commissioners went line by line in an attempt to cut where they could and hold the line on last year’s spending.
That was accomplished, with the exception of the school board, which asked for an additional $250,000 at the June 6 commissioner’s meeting. Faced with state budget uncertainty, and a roughly $1 million dollar budget shortfall, Ashe County Schools superintendent Travis Reeves held off cutting teaching positions by drawing $750,000 from the school system’s $2 million dollar fund balance.
The school system’s budget shortfall came after lawmakers in Raleigh funded salaries for teachers and assistants, but cut the district’s discretionary funding by $928,000.
The additional $250,000 Reeves sought from the county was designed to bridge the remaining budget gap potentially averting cuts to faculty and staff within the school system, and allow the rehiring of staff recently cut.
The commissioners allocated half of what the school requested - $125,000.
Ashe County Schools thanked the commissioners. “This funding will enable the school system to re-employ teachers whose contracts were not renewed due to the budget. The Board of Education is most appreciative ofthe county commissioners’ continued support. We are fortunate to have commissioners who partner with the school system to ensure excellence in education to support our students,” read a statement sent to the Post.
Likewise, the 2011-2012 county dipped into its own fund balance. Expected revenues for the upcoming year are $27,588,500 versus a proposed budget of $30,253,909. This left the county to fill a $2 million hole with the county’s savings fund.
“Using the general fund is preferable to a tax increase to fill the $2 million gap,” said Ashe County Manager Dan McMillan.
Using $2 million from the fund balance will leave the county with $6 million in the account. Government guidelines suggest that a county keep 8 percent in reserve to meet operating demands. Using this year’s $30 million budget as a guideline, a $6 million fund balance leaves the county with 20 percent in reserve to meet emergencies.
Breakdown of Revenue
On the revenue side, property taxes compose the bulk of county proceeds, at $15.2 million. Local sales brings in $4.5 million.
Restricted intergovernmental revenue, which consists of state and federal grants, adds an additional $5.8 million to county coffers.
Licenses and permits bring in $300,000, while county sales and service which is composed of things like DMV notary fees and recreation program fees adds $1.1 million.
The fund currently contains approximately $8 million, which would be reduced to $6 million by the proposed shortfall plugging measure.
Breakdown of Expenses
• Social Services, the two largest parts comprised of regular salaries and wages at $3,009,734 and Contracts/Child Day Care at $1,149,417 – $8,707,385.
• Education, the largest part comprised of School Current Expense at $3,635,520 – $4,601,348.
• Debt service, the largest part of which is principal payments at $2,398,507 – $2,234,707.
• Law enforcement, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $1,090,998 – $1,841,096.
• Corrections, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $583,437 – $1,609,807.
• Public buildings, the largest part comprised of property and general liability insurance at $275,000 – $1,149,921.
• Tax administration, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $609,984 – $927,967.
• Human services, the largest part comprised of Ashe Services for Aging at $315,039 – $900,812.
• Ambulance and rescue, the largest part comprised of contracts/ambulance service at $770,220 – $826,220.
• Parks and Recreation, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $181,131 – $660,719.
• Economic development, the largest part comprised of a capital reserve fund at $189,915 – $462,358.
• Register of Deeds, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $240,666 – $420,919.
• Library, the largest part comprised of Appalachian Regional Library – $408,480.
• Communications, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $265,278 – $393,335.
• Health, comprised of Appalachian District health – $372,612.
• Cooperative Extension, the largest part comprised of contracts/NC State University at $242,585 – $356,387.
• Inspections, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $230,418 – $349,608.
• Finance, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at 193,488 – $310,089.
• Data processing, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $117,465 – $265,795.
• Animal control, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $140,667 – $250,836.
• Administration, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $144,681 – $226,266.
• Airport, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $36,072 – $214,476.
• Board of Elections, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $76,458 – $190,210.
• Emergency management, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $75,372 – $182,618.
• Governing Body, composed of expenses like travel, postage, and telephone expense – $169,702.
• E911 operations fund, the largest part comprised of capital outlay for equipment at $98,333 – $138,733.
• Fire, the largest part comprised of a contract with cooperative forestry at $63,498 – $132,894.
• Planning, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $77,457 – $125,699.
• Cultural Arts, the largest parts comprised equally of the 1904 Courthouse Preservation Committee and the Ashe County Civic Center, each at $45,000, – $122,000.
• Soil conservation, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $74,856 – $111,116.
Mental Health, comprised of New River Mental Health – $189,566.
• Veterans services, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $34,551 – $57,167.
• E911 coordinator, the largest part comprised of regular salaries and wages at $36,117 – $55,730.
• Fund transfers – $0.
• Contingency Fund is $250,000.
• Total expenses – $30,253,909.
Ashe Services for Aging
Mary Owen, representing Ashe Services for Aging, was in attendance to talk about the approval for the Home and Community Care Block Grant Budget revision which passed the commission by unanimous vote.
Jane Banks, also representing Ashe Services for Aging, presented county commissioners with an invitation to attend the open house for the organizations new Ashe Assisted Living Care, which opened March 30.
Banks said the new assisted living facility has 55 beds total, 24 of which are on the memory care side which serves patients dealing with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other memory degrading ailments.
Poe, posing a question, said, “Jane, can you answer the rumor going around that Margate moved their Alzheimer’s patients to your facility and closed theirs?”
Banks went on to say that they did receive a number of referrals from Margate, who is closing their memory care unit, though AALC would not be able to absorb all the patients due to Medicaid rules, and care requirements that are higher than what the facility could handle.
“If they can’t afford to pay privately, there’s no way that they can be a resident. As I said, there’s a couple over there that would have come but they couldn’t qualify for the financial part of it. I believe the problem with one was property, and the other’s income was too high to qualify for skilled care. So, I don’t think we’ll ever meet the needs of everyone,” said Banks.
Rounding out the general session meeting with commissioner comments, Larry Rhodes used his time to commend American Emergency Vehicles in Jefferson, who were honored last week with their second Carolina Star award, North Carolina’s prestigious safety award that has been awarded to less than 150 companies statewide.
Price used his time to address the debt concerns that plague the nation as a whole, currently at over $14.5 trillion dollars.
“In reference to the budget, it is a very big concern, and I know a lot of people out in the public are concerned about the budget being proposed today, but I want everyone to know, the most evil tax that there is in the United States is inflation. As more money is printed, yours and mine become weaker and weaker, and it is a hidden tax. What I’m saying is that not only should people be voicing their concerns with their county commissioners, but you have to start at the top and work your way down” said Price.
Commissioner Gary Roark asked to make a motion on an up or down vote on a variance for a piece of property in the Fleetwood community. Located on the banks of the New River, the property straddles the boundaries between floodplain and floodway. The motion to grant the variance failed 2-3 with Commissioners Poe, Sands, and Rhodes in opposition, and commissioners Roark and Price in favor.
Poe used her time to recognize the budget work done by the state legislature in Raleigh was favorable to counties statewide.
“Overall the budget that was passed by the state legislature was friendly to the counties. Now I’m not saying that we agree with everything that was passed in the budget, and I’m not saying that every commissioner agreed with it. What I’m saying is the goals that the county commissioners put up to the legislature, we had most of our goals met and passed and, for that the county commissioners are grateful for it.
She went on to further warn that all options are on the table again next year in terms of spending cuts and warned of several key issues. She said that the idea is being floated around Raleigh that funding for secondary roads would revert to the county level. This means Ashe County would be responsible for building and maintaining all secondary roads within the county. This would have the potential to add up to 12 to 13 cents to the tax rate.
Poe also said that the idea of a mileage tax has been proposed, where your odometer could be read and recorded during each annual vehicle inspection, and residents would be responsible for paying a tax on the mileage driven during the year.
“The reasoning behind this is that if you use the road, then you should be paying the taxes, but one of the downfalls of this is, all of these people that don’t have cars registered in North Carolina, but live here full time, we’re not going to get that tax from them. We’ve all seen neighbors with cars registered in other states; we’d be losing that money,” said Poe.
Public comments on the budget
The 4:30 business session began with a public hearing concerning the 2011-2012 budget.
Tom Pope urged the commissioners to “think small.”
“It certainly seems that we’re all faced with a dilemma, in the future, how we do more with less?” said Pope.
Fleetwood resident Ed McLaren posed the question about the county’s debt service. Would it be prudent to use the relatively healthy county fund balance to pay down debt if the numbers worked out in the county’s favor?
“If you don’t mind, take a look at the interest we’re getting on our 8 million, soon to be 6 million (fund balance), versus what our interest obligation is on the debt for our high school and Westwood,” said McLaren.
Cynthia Wadsworth of West Jefferson asked, concerning the $125,000 the county commissioners had given the Ashe County school system following Travis Reeves June 6 request for an additional $250,000, “It looks like the county schools are supposed to cut from the top positions first, administrative or central office positions, and then I believe it’s assistant principals. My concern is who will hold them accountable to make sure they’re supposed to make the cuts they’re supposed to make?” said Wadsworth.
Price, answering the question, said, “The general public at large should hold them accountable. We have nothing to do with that school board whatsoever. It’s out of our hands.”
Commissioners budget comments
Rhodes began by expressing his appreciation to Sandy Long and her finance department for the work they had put into this budget. Rhodes cited spending on technological improvements in the schools, notably Smartboards, that better prepare Ashe County’s youth to compete when they venture into the wider world as things to be proud of.
“We’ve been very, very involved in what all we have looked at. What we’ve taken in, and not been able to fund everything we wanted to as individuals. But as a collective group we’ve got a great budget that we can present to our county and be proud of it,” said Rhodes.
Price thanked the county administration and the commissioners for the diligent work they have put in this budget season. He also used the opportunity to further address the national inflation issue.
“I think that is one place we all, each and every one of us has, the responsibility to file our complaints with the top, and that’s Washington, D.C. and I can honestly sit here and say without any reservation and hesitation that we honestly did the very best we can do for this county,” said Price.
Commissioner William Sands thanked county employees for their dedication and willingness to cut overhead.
“I look at our little county and how it’s managed and I’m just very proud. I don’t like to pay taxes; I’m also on a fixed income, but our county taxes are reasonable in comparison to other counties. I’m just very proud of what these people have done; I can take no credit for it. I haven’t been here that long.” said Sands.
Commissioner Roark said, “We’ve made a lot of cuts in this budget and, from what I understand, it’s lower this year than it was last year. When it comes to revaluations, I know a lot of them increased, but we cut something like $1.8 million off the revaluations. I just took my house for instance and I figured my taxes for next year. And mine went from $285 to $309. If we cut 2.5 cents, I’ll be paying $11 dollars more per year on taxes but for what we’re getting for the $11, I think it’s worth that.”
Poe, answered concerns posed about the way revaluations were calculated.
“Ashe County had a board of review to give each and every property owner the opportunity to talk face to face with commissioners and tax administration. The board consisted of three commissioners, the tax administrator, and county appraisor. Resources available for this committee were detailed maps of the property and the surrounding properties, topographical maps which showed the contour of the property, pictures of the home, land, and business property. We were available for revaluation review from 8 a.m. to 8 pm. which gave everyone an opportunity to come in, no matter what hours they worked.
“Taxpayers also have the option of appealing the tax values to Raleigh concerning their assessed values. Many property owners did come into the B and R and sit through the process. The commissioners looked at the budget line by line. We reviewed each request for extra funding that came in. While the budget is not perfect, the commissioners strived to balance the funds available with the needs of the county,” said Poe
Dan McMillan also addressed revaluation concerns by explaining the county is now moving to a four year revaluation cycle to ease some of the sticker shock taxpayers feel when they receive their tax bill. “By going to four years with our next revaluation, we’re hoping that it will show a steady, slow increase, if any increase. There may not be an increase. We don’t know what that’s going to bring. The increase over the past two years has been very low. I think this last year was actually a decrease,” said McMillan.