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Tax hike floated as option to fill Halifax budget gap

A $1.4 million deficit is facing Halifax County Board of Supervisors as they start to tackle  the 2012-2013 budget draft that includes funding requests from departments and agencies totaling $87.7 million.

Supervisor Chairman Tom West joined members of the finance committee – Doug Bowman, William Fitzgerald and J. T. Davis – Monday afternoon as they got their first glimpse of the work in progress being prepared by County Finance Director Stephanie Jackson.

During the two-hour meeting Monday, supervisors reviewed departments’ and outside agencies’ budget requests for the coming year and offered guidance to the finance director as she works to develop a budget draft.

According to Jackson, the $1.4 million gap between revenues and expenses results primarily from a 2.5 percent increase across the board in required contributions to the Virginia Retirement System for county employees
and the continuing rise in gas costs.

Rising estimated health insurance costs also account for $211,000 of the budget gap, she said.

Specific requests considered Monday afternoon included:

General District Court’s increased line item for video conferencing;

Volunteer Fire Departments’ increased line item for communications to relocate tower and equipment;

Ambulance and Rescue Services increased line item for equipment;

Public Works’ need to replace front line trucks with over 300,000 miles;

Building and Grounds’ increased line item for janitorial supplies such as paper products;

Southside Community Services Board increased request from $67,450 currently being funded to $142,866;

Regional Library’s request from $158,000 in the current budget to $180,000;

Planning and Zoning’s request for additional funds to cover the comprehensive plan review required every five years;

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s request to reinstate A & R agent funding of $28,000;

YMCA’s request for increased funding from $60,000 in current year to $130,000;

E-911’s request for increased funding in education and training line item and $3,500 for uniforms; and

Sheriff’s request for $125,000 to purchase five vehicles to continue the department’s policy of replacing four to five vehicles each year.

After reviewing each individual department’s request, finance committee members suggested Jackson use level funding from the current year when determining line items and eliminate any new full-time position requests.

According to Jackson, the only request to add a full-time position with benefits totaling about $45,000 came from Emergency Services Coordinator Kirby Saunders who is seeking a full-time deputy coordinator.

Currently, Chad Loftis serves as part-time emergency services coordinator training many volunteers for area fire departments at the county’s training facility.

Jackson said Loftis provides a training service available to the 450 volunteers in the county’s 13 departments that is state mandated. If not for Loftis’ ability to train these volunteers, Jackson said they would have to go outside the county to obtain the necessary training.

Also as part of their first budget discussions this year, finance committee members discussed including a 2 percent salary hike for county employees that would add another $150,000 to the budget gap.

Or in lieu of a raise, supervisors suggested paying for any increase in health insurance premiums for employee only coverage.

It has been four years since employees received a cost of living increase in salary, Jackson told supervisors. However, the county has covered increases in the county insurance premiums in those years when no raises were given.

“You could argue that it is more effective to get health insurance tax free rather than getting a salary increase that is subject to taxes,” Bowman said.

He pointed to “back to back years” when health insurance premiums increased by 15 percent, and the county picked up the additional costs rather than passing it on to employees.

Finance committee members agreed to hold off on making any decision about whether to include cost of living increases or pay the employees’ additional increase in health insurance premiums until mid-March when they find out how much employees’ insurance premiums will be increasing.

When discussing cost saving strategies, finance committee members suggested not filling any vacancies and centralizing payroll and other “back office” operations with the county school system and other departments that currently do their payrolls separately.

In addition to centralizing payroll, considering implementation of a central purchasing system for all county departments was another cost saving strategy discussed.

County Administrator George Nester pointed out it would take 14 months to implement a central purchasing system to include all departments including the school system.

One way to balance the $1.4 million gap in the budget would be to increase taxes.

ED-1 Supervisor J. T. Davis pointed out it would take over a 3 cents increase in the current real estate tax rate which he said he couldn’t see doing.

Every one penny increase in the real estate tax rate generates $378,500.

Currently the real estate tax rate is 43 cents per $100 value, but with the recent reassessment the equalized tax rate is expected to be raised to 45 cents.

According to Jackson, the real estate tax rate will have to increase from the current 43 cents to 45 cents in order to maintain the same amount of money in the county coffers due to lower reassessments of county properties.

A public hearing has been set for March 15 at 6:30 p.m. in Halifax on the change in the tax rate.

Jackson said she expects to present supervisors with draft proposals of the 2012-13 budget by the first week in March.

“We’re going to have another difficult (budget) year ahead of us as we start this tough job with a gap of over $1 million,” Bowman concluded.

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