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Tax hike balances budget

Halifax County’s proposed 2014/15 budget is balanced, but it will require a one-cent hike in the real estate tax rate.

Halifax County Board of Supervisors reviewed the $87.9 million budget draft Monday night during a work session presentation in Halifax by County Administrator Jim Halasz and Finance Director Stephanie Jackson. 

The proposal reflects a 1 percent increase over the current year’s budget, calls for a one-cent hike in the real estate rate to make it revenue neutral and includes no salary hikes for county employees.

The budget draft proposes raising the real estate tax rate from 45 cents to 46 cents to counteract the decline in assessed values and pay for debt service to be incurred for renovation to the sheriff’s department and temporary courts, Halasz explained.

Halifax County’s proposed new real estate tax rate of 46 cents compares to neighboring counties’ rates including Campbell at 53 cents, Charlotte at 48 cents, Mecklenburg at 38 cents and Pittsylvania at 56 cents.

The budget also includes the absorption of the entire cost increase for county
employee’s health care in the coming year, since no raises are being proposed.

Minor fee adjustments also are proposed in animal control, building permits and recreation, but these hikes are expected to generate relatively little new revenue, according to the county administrator.

Staff did not dip into the unassigned or undesignated surplus funds to balance the proposed budget either.

“This practice is frowned upon by financial institutions and bond rating agencies, and it is indicative of unsustainable spending levels, and it is less than an ideal fiscal management practice,” Halasz said, adding, “It is also evidence of not balancing the budget as required by State Code.”

Original budget requests from all departments and agencies when compared to the revenue the county expects to receive in the coming year resulted in a deficit of approximately $4 million.

Had this deficit been eliminated solely by raising real estate taxes, the rate would need to be increased by 11 cents to a new rate of 56 cents per $100 of assessed value, the county administrator said, noting that would represent a 24.4 percent increase.

Instead, staff made cuts to balance the budget.

In drafting the 2014 proposed budget, Halasz said the guiding principle used was to stay within the current year’s expenditure levels unless mandated to provide increases.

Along those lines, staff recommended no increases in staffing levels unless it is critical to maintain vital services, honoring its funding commitments to partner and regional agencies and local government partners and covering the anticipated debt service costs from the Phase I facility renovation projects for the sheriff’s office and temporary courts.

While reviewing the proposed budget Monday, supervisors were informed most county departments’ operational budgets are less than the prior year.

However, health care costs are anticipated to increase and are included in the staff recommended budget.

Halasz pointed out several significant changes included in the budget.

Revenues are up thanks to increased assessment amounts and the use of a third party collecting personal property taxes.

 A total of $30,000 was removed from the board of supervisors’ professional services expense since these funds have not been used in past year.

 Central accounting’s budget increased due to the new VISION CAMA annual maintenance agreement;

 Sheriff’s department budget increased to replace bulletproof vests;

 Line of Duty Act premiums went up 27 percent that is reflected in the sheriff’s, volunteer fire departments’ and emergency services’ budgets.

 The regional jail budget increased by $300,000 due to the jail inmate population increasing.

 Funding to the Community Services Board was increased by $25,000 because failure to increase it would have resulted in loss of services offered in the community.

 Funding for the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center remains at $104,229 to match a tobacco commission grant that will be fulfilled in 2016.

 A total of $5,000 is included for The Prizery to match a State Arts Commission Grant.

 Operating funds for the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority were held steady, but a request for $114,000 to match a tobacco commission grant is not included in the proposed budget.

 The tourism budget was held flat at the current year’s funding level of $106,119. In addition, Virginia’s Retreat cost of $4,500 and Roanoke River Rails to Trails’ fee of $2,000 are funded by the transient occupancy revenues.

 Funding required for the Virginia Department of Agriculture grant for the meat processing project is eliminated.

 Funding is decreased for the Old Dominion RC&D program.

 Cooperative Extension’s budget increased due to higher cost of state benefits.

 Debt service increased due to new debt to fund the renovations of the administration building for the sheriff’s office and new temporary courts.

 Social Services budget saw an increase due to one mandated staff position and a local match for a Safe and Stable Families grant.

 CSA budget was increased due to rising caseload and mandated care.

 Halifax County Public Schools’ funding will remain the same as the current year.

 The sheriff’s department budget reflects an increase of $130,000 to fund five new vehicles.

 E911 budget includes funding for two full-time dispatchers to support a restructured work schedule based on an approximate 40-hour pay structure with overtime to be paid for hours worked over 40.

While the proposed budget is balanced and significant cuts to existing budget levels may not be required, “we are clearly not yet on a completely sound financial footing,” Halasz told supervisors Monday night.

He cautioned supervisors to carefully consider any added programs or expenditures that increase the base of recurring expenses. 

“With the debt service for the new courthouse and any other facility renovations on the horizon, we need to add new expenditures only on a very selective level,” the county administrator concluded.