Three shared their comments via letter during last week’s Madison County Board of Supervisors’ public hearing on the tax rate.
The proposed fiscal year 2021 budget includes a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax, from $0.70 to $0.72 per 100 of assessed value. The change amounts to approximately $340,000 in new local revenue. The revenue is needed to help balance the county’s proposed fiscal year budget of approximately $42.1 million, approximately $26 million of which is in the general fund.
The proposed budget includes approximately $11 million in big ticket items which will need to be financed including the Madison Primary School renovation project, the emergency communications radio project and an overhaul of the county administration building. Contracts have already been signed for the school renovation and the radio project. Also included is a new IT department, something county department heads have requested for years and the separation of animal control and the animal shelter. For employees, the fruition of a compensation study that was conducted over several months also appears in the budget. That study revised position descriptions and graded employees, ultimately giving raises to then bring employees within those grades. Employees were given the greater of the increase to hit the minimum pay amount on their new grade or a half-percent increase for each year of service. The changes total approximately $257,000. Total compensation is approximately $456,000. Additional measures of approximately $179,000 were removed by supervisors. Those include increasing a position in the court clerk’s office from part-time to full-time, adding an additional full-time position in the E-911 department and adding a building permit technician position. Supervisors also decided to forgo a previously discussed 1 percent cost of living adjustment.
In additional cuts made earlier this month, supervisors opted to essentially flat fund the school division, giving them an additional $193,480, far less than the requested approximately $500,000 increase. The number was derived from the balance of the decrease in state funds and increase in state sales tax the school division will receive.
The general fund budget is balanced using approximately $22.2 million in local revenue, up approximately 5.65 percent from the current year; approximately $2.8 million in state funding, up approximately 5.65 percent from the current year and approximately $136,000 in federal revenue, up .74 percent from the current year. Supervisors opted to balance the budget by using approximately $714,000 in fund balance, down 33.69 percent from the current year.
Supervisor Carty Yowell said he’s concerned with any kind of tax increase, especially now.
“Not only will they not be able to afford it, but they won’t be able to pay what [they owe],” he said, noting that there have been 200 applications for unemployment in Madison County since the start of the coronavirus situation.
“In talking to people, they understand things go up, but not now,” he added.
Yowell suggested flat funding all outside agencies and appealing to department heads to take a closer look at their budgets and see where they can cut. He also suggested implementing the pay raises associated with the compensation study in a phased approach, with half this July and the other half next July.
Assistant superintendent and finance director Mary Jane Costello said doing so would save approximately $125,000. She also pointed out that VRS rates increased from 8.54 to 10.59 percent, a 24 percent increase resulting in an additional cost of approximately $100,000. She said the county is also funding the health insurance costs, which increased by 30 percent in fiscal year 2020, for a full 12 months. The current budget has 10 months at the new rate and two at the old rate. The additional two months at the new rate in next year’s budget are approximately $40,000. There’s also an additional $37,000 to fund a part-time animal shelter manager position, an additional $13,000 to increase the emergency management coordinator’s hours and $35,000 for one position that was only employed half of the year in the current budget and will be employed a full year in the fiscal year 2021 budget.
“Compensation with wages and fringes makes up half of the operating budget increase,” Costello said. “Keep in mind $200,000 is stuff unrelated to compensation, some of which is contractual, certainly VRS.”
Board of supervisors chairman Clay Jackson said the administration building renovation is low hanging fruit and may have to be delayed. He also said the pay increase is something that will need to be discussed. He said no one likes a tax increase and there’s never a good time for one.
“A 2-cent increase on $200,000 of assessed value is $40 on the tax bill,” he said.
Supervisor Amber Foster said she understands the hesitation toward a tax increase, but said if it isn’t done this year, it will likely have to be more of an increase next year.
“If we do 2-cents here, 1-cent here, it’s easier, but I understand,” she said.
Supervisor Charlotte Hoffman said she isn’t in favor of a tax increase. She said the board would need to find $340,000 in cost reductions to make up for the revenue that would have come from a 2-cent increase.
Speaking via letter, resident Jeff Ferry said the county should postpone its meeting to allow residents to be able to attend given the governor’s shelter in place order. The meeting was available via three different methods including phone and two different online video conferencing systems.
Also by letter, Susan Bramley spoke in favor of the school division. She said she was dismayed by the decision to cut the funding request from schools noting that the school budget is actually 2 percent less than the current year. She said due to a loss in state funding, more local funding is required. As for those who would argue that they don’t have anyone in the schools and thus shouldn’t have to fund an increase, Bramley pointed out that she doesn’t have a family member in jail, but her tax dollars pay for it. She also noted she’s only called the sheriff’s office twice and doesn’t use the department of social services.
“We are all directly and indirectly affected by the quality of our schools,” she said. “If we need a tax increase to fund the county, so be it.”
On the opposite side, Don Gearhart wrote to the board expressing his concerns about a tax increase. He said it is the worst possible time to increase tax rates, noting that some businesses won’t be here in June and many won’t be able to pay their real estate tax bills. He said the administration building renovation could wait another year as could the new IT department. Like Bramley, he said he was in favor of shifting more money to the schools, although he said not the full requested amount.
County administrator Jack Hobbs said the proposed budget is that of a placeholder and will need to be revisited as a whole in approximately six months due to the current uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 situation. He suggested discussing the budget at the board’s April 28 meeting, appropriating it June 9 and then revisiting it sometime in the August-September timeframe.
“I think it will be hard to find $340,000,” Costello said. “You could find $200,000 fairly easy with the [salary] delay and approximately $47,000 that doesn’t need to be spent in IT.”
Supervisor Kevin McGhee said he hopes the board can find the $340,000 to avoid the tax increase, but is skeptical.
Madison County Public Schools Superintendent Anna Graham said she understands this is a difficult budget year, but the school division’s funding request is only to maintain its current staff. She said the request doesn’t include any new staffing except $10,000 in coaching stipends to expand middle school sports offerings and $16,000 in bus aides to keep students safe. She said the governor has postponed the original 2 percent salary increase for teachers and similar to the county, the school division has to fund the entire 12 months of the increased insurance rate in fiscal year 2021 as opposed to just 10 months in the current budget.
“When 80 percent of the budget is in personnel, there’s nothing we can do to reduce it without touching positions,” she said.
Jackson said the originally included $193,000 increase for the schools covers the originally expected loss in state revenue (that number will increase due to some changes at the state level).
“I think [the increase in funding to the schools] needs to be $350,000,” he said. “It’s some pain from us and them too.”
Graham said the school division would still need to eliminate some positions, but not as many.
The supervisors will continue their budget discussion April 28.