Budget and tax rate public hearings can be lively. Particularly following a countywide reassessment. 

On the other hand, last Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors staged three public hearings and heard only the sounds of their own voices and a handful of county staff.

Meeting remotely, the board opened three public hearings, soliciting written citizen comment on the proposed 2021 budget, tax rate and first-half taxes due date. Those wishing to comment had until 5 p.m. Monday, April 27, to submit their input in writing to board clerk Alyson Simpson either by postal or electronic mail.

The board was scheduled to read any comments into the record and expected to take action at its meeting Tuesday, April 28 (after presstime).

The board is considering a proposed $123.8 million consolidated budget funded, in part, by a real estate tax rate of $0.61 per $100 of assessed value. That figure does not include the $0.11 fire and EMS district levy the board adopted earlier this year to fund those services exclusively. The two figures together amount to an equalized real estate tax rate of $0.72.

In his presentation to the board, new county administrator Ted Voorhees reported the county’s net taxable value had increased from $4 billion in 2019 to $4.6 billion in 2020—a 14.78% increase. Of that, he said, $59 million was new construction and excluded from the equalized rate.

Initially, the board advertised an $0.08 tax rate increase, but that was prior to the COVID-19 state of emergency and more of a “placeholder” as the board worked to finalize its 2021 fiscal year budget.

“At that point, there was a lot we didn’t know from the state and our own budget was in an unusual state of flux,” District 1 Supervisor Mark Johnson said. “We decided to advertise as if there was no reassessment and just assumed we’d revise it down. We didn’t know how much and when the COVID emergency came up, we made the decision that it [the real estate tax rate] should remain flat.”

“As the budget development continued and the state of emergency was issued by the commonwealth and the county and the COVID-19 situation became more apparent, the budget committed worked to pare back the budget and recommended the proposed tax rate be equalized,” Voorhees said.

Even so, the proposed 2021 budget includes nearly $15 million in funds to tackle four substantial capital projects—renovations and an addition at Gordon-Barbour Elementary School ($6.3 million), modifications to the county-owned Blue Bell building to create a technical education center ($2.5 million), opening of a new landfill cell ($3 million) and furthering the county’s broadband initiative ($3 million).

The proposed $123.8 million consolidate budget includes $74.8 million in total school funds and $49 million for other county operations, collectively representing a 16 percent increase from the 2020 adopted budget—most of which can be accounted for in the funds it expects to borrow for the capital projects.

Removing the capital projects and associated debt service, the proposed budget represented a 2.14% increase, according to Orange County Assistant Administrator Glenda Bradley.

General property taxes (including personal property) account for 35% of county revenue, with state categorical aid (mostly designated for schools and social services) representing 27%. The one-time financing proceeds included in this year’s budget represent 13%.

With much of the budget developed prior to the COVID-19 emergency, some other local revenue sources—such as sales, and meals and lodging taxes—likely will fall below anticipated projections, Bradley said.

The proposed budget is balanced with $2.6 million from the county reserves.

In her presentation last Tuesday, Bradley said schools represent 38% of the board’s discretionary funding, followed by 19% in debt service. Public safety (not including the designated fire and EMS tax levy and services) accounts for 11% of the budget, with public works at 8%. Government administration and health and human services total 6% apiece. Community development and judicial administration each represent 3% of the board’s spending with capital projects and parks and recreation accounting for 2% apiece.

The board’s final report (and public hearing) came from county attorney Tom Lacheney, who explained extending the deadline for the first payment of real estate property taxes from June 5 to June 20. Additionally, taxpayers will have a grace period to pay until July 20 without penalty, according to the proposed ordinance. Additionally, those taxes due June 20 can be paid at any time before July 20, 2020 with no penalty or interest, Lacheney noted.

Following each report, the board or county staff noted citizens could submit comments in writing to the board clerk Alyson Simpson by 5 p.m. Monday, April 27, to be read into the record at the following evening’s board meeting. Monday evening, Simpson reported she’d received one comment—from Legal Aid Works thanking the board for consideration of their budget request, which she noted the board receives each year.

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