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Halifax County budget remains up in air

A divided Halifax County Board of Supervisors took no action Monday evening to balance the proposed $87.2 million 2011-12 county budget that includes a $2.5 million deficit.

Nor did they agree on whether to raise the real estate tax rate by two-cents, an increase that is already included in the draft budget.
Following a public hearing in which 13 people spoke (see related story), supervisors debated whether to cut services, raise taxes or do a combination of both to fill the $2.5 million gap.

One point they all agreed on — none of the $6 million general fund balance will be used this year to get the board out of the budget jam in which it finds itself.

Board members seem divided over whether to raise taxes with ED-1 Supervisor J. T. Davis and ED-6 Supervisor Wayne Conner adamantly opposed, and ED-3 Supervisor William Fitzgerald and ED-8 Supervisor W. Bryant Claiborne leaning in favor of the two-cent rate hike.

ED-7 Supervisor Lottie Nunn and ED-5 Supervisor Kenneth Snead voiced no opinion during the budget work session Monday evening following the public hearing.

However, Finance Chairman Doug Bowman was quick to point out a two-cent real estate hike “is not the big elephant in the room.”

A two-cent rate hike will bring in about $750,000, leaving supervisors still searching for an additional $2 million to balance the budget.

“You can pick your poison on how you want to do it,” the finance chairman said, adding, “but we have to have a consensus, and the general fund is not an option.”

He pointed out localities such as the county are finding themselves in a predicament after state legislators balanced their budget by passing mandates on to the local level.

“After three years of being in this situation, much of this has been pushed on us from the state down. The state has balanced the state budget on the backs of local taxpayers. When it gets pushed down to us, we have nowhere else to push it. It’s cut, or it gets put on the backs of local taxpayers,” Bowman said.

However, Davis quickly reminded fellow board members that at February’s retreat they had agreed to try and balance the budget without a tax increase.

Fitzgerald said supervisors “can only cut so much” because it is the board’s duty to deliver services the county is responsible for providing for the citizens.

He pointed out the tax rate here when compared to other counties “isn’t the highest.”

“We’ve got to make up the difference some place. We have no choice except to go to the citizens, and it hurts,” Fitzgerald said.
Supervisors Conner and Davis challenged Fitzgerald’s comments on how Halifax County’s real estate tax rate compares to neighboring counties.

County citizens are currently paying 114 percent more on general property taxes than they did 10 years ago with the real estate rate increasing over the past decade from 31 cents to 43 cents, Conner said.

Davis pointed out that compared to the county’s current 43 cents real estate tax rate, nine nearby counties with similar demographics have an average real estate tax rate of 44 cents.

“So the numbers do not reflect what you just said,” Davis told Fitzgerald.

Mecklenburg’s rate is 34-cents, Charlotte County has a 42-cent rate, and Campbell’s is 46-cents.

Pittsylvania County’s rate is 52 cents, but Finance Director Stephanie Jackson pointed out that county’s population is much larger than Halifax, and it also operates four high schools compared to Halifax County’s one central high school which accounts for the need for higher taxes there.

“We are paying double what we did 10 years ago and don’t say that all this stuff has been legislated to us. We are spending $5 million on the school debt that we made the decision to spend,” Conner added. “We can not continue to increase the tax burdens and spend at will.”

However, Claiborne pointed out the county did not get to the point it is in overnight.

“I sit back and hear people talk to me about the school system and that we built schools three years ago that cost so much. Look back 20 years ago when it wouldn’t have cost but $14 million to build those schools, and what happened? They refused to do it over 22 years, and so we had to pay for it three years ago when we built the schools.

“It’s our duty as a board to do things that are going to protect the county citizenship,” Claiborne continued. “If that had been done back in 1992, we wouldn’t be sitting here complaining today.

“You think you’re crying now, but next year you’re going to cry more if we have to go up 10-cents,” he told the supervisors who are opposed to raising taxes this year. “You’re just putting off the inevitable.”

He suggested it is much easier on taxpayers to raise taxes incrementally by two-cents rather “than just jump on the wagon all of a sudden and do a 12-cents raise.”

Claiborne added, “It’s just reality. We don’t have the money. Either you pay now, or you’re going to pay later. I just wanted to let ya’ll know that, because it’s going to happen. We have to do it. We keep putting off the inevitable, so we ought to deal with it in a common sense way.”

After further discussion with supervisors unable to agree on how to balance the budget, Supervisor Chairman West suggested everyone go home and study the budget and wait until next Monday to make a final decision on where to cut and whether to raise taxes.

Finance Chairman Doug Bowman urged each supervisor to attend next Monday night’s meeting prepared to tell the board where cuts should be made.

He referred to cost saving options that would allow supervisors to close the gap that already have been presented to the board.
They include 20 specific budget saving options totaling almost $4 million.

One of the optional budget cuts discussed included funding the school system only the $10,396,115 required by the Department of Education – instead of level funding of $13.2 million as included in the budget - for a savings of $2,859,885.

This past year the county funded $13,256,000 in local monies to the school system that, according to county officials, is more than what’s required by the department of education.

Supervisors maintain the Department of Education requires the county to fund the school system a minimum of $10,396,115 for its 5,500 plus student enrollment, which the proposed budget exceeds with the level funding of $13,256,000.

Other cost saving options discussed include:

• Reducing hours at convenience and recycling centers for a savings of $100,811.16.

• Combining job responsibilities in agriculture development for a savings of $8,000;

• Eliminating the contractfor mowing and painting for a savings in general properties of $9,000;

•  Reducing in-house maintenance for the county IDA (Industrial Development Authority) saving the county $70,000;

• Reducing the Halifax Opportunity Fund that provides enterprise zone and other economic development incentives to the actual FY 2012 requirement for a savings of $190,000;

• Cutting local funding to the improvement council budget to include only grant monies received for a savings of $24,778;

• Reducing the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center to level funding received in FY 2010 for a savings of $12,778;

• Not filling the extension agent vacancy and not replacing a retiree for a savings of $41,641;

• Reducing the transfer to the Department of Social Services to what they have actually used in past years for a savings of $177,658;

• Not picking up the projected 15 percent increase in health insurance for employees for a savings of $180,630;

• Increasing the transfer station tipping fee from $49.50 to $53 generating $65,000 in additional revenue;

•  Reducing the board of supervisors’ wages by five percent for a savings of $2,648.19;

•  Reducing the subsidy for four full-time constitutional employees for a savings of $144,150.32;

•  Reducing travel/education/convention by 50 percent for all departments for a savings of $41,700;

•  Eliminating contributions to entities not mandated or governed including $15,200 to the Area Agency on Aging, $13,086 to the Halifax/South Boston Museum, $13,538 to the Longwood Small Business Center, $7,852 to the YMCA and $3,194 to Old Dominion Resource Conservation.

Total of all savings excluding the school budget options is $1,121,664.67.

When the $2,859,885 school reduction is included, the 20 options total $3,981,549.67 in possible savings to the county.

Supervisors scheduled a work session for 6:30 p.m. next Monday before they will vote to set the tax rates.