Tax rate stable, pay cuts eliminated, grants lower

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Marshall County commissioners appear ready to adopt a new budget without a property tax rate increase or reductions in county employees' work hours.

And annual matching grants to volunteer fire departments weren't eliminated, as previously planned. They were reduced from $4,500 to $1,500, according to several commissioners.

Conflict and/or confusion seemed to continue early this week over the schools' budget, and so educators rescheduled their monthly school board meeting for a second time, according to reports received late Tuesday morning. It's now projected to be Sept. 23 at 6 p.m. Commissioners apparently anticipated that and planned to vote on the general fund separately and adopt a school spending plan on Sept. 28.

That's just two days before the state could withhold BEP (Basic Education Program) funds.

The county's property tax rate of $3.09 per $100 of assessed value, as set last summer, was the subject of a public hearing Thursday conducted by the commission led by Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill who's noted that adoption of a budget in late September "isn't unusual."

"We did the very same thing last year," Neill said of setting a spending plan nearly three months into a fiscal year that started on July. 1.

Delays include a lack of information on school funding from the state.

"They didn't know how much their BEP money would be," Neill said.

Commissioners want to prevent a property tax rate increase this year and next. Spending has been cut enough to hold the line this year, but if schools spend too much from reserves, then next summer it must be replenished to maintain a state-mandated fund balance of three percent of spending. Another state law requires schools to be provided the same amount as spent the previous year, so the two laws act together and force increased spending if reserves are spent.

Places to cut school spending were being found, "and that's great," said Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the commission's budget committee. He also noted the school board and the teachers association were at loggerheads over health insurance funding with teachers insisting a dollar amount had been negotiated and couldn't be changed, while system leaders sought to reap savings since premiums had dropped.

School system leaders are taking their budget adopting close to the state deadline, King said.

Meanwhile, commissioners had asked department leaders to trim spending, even if they had to cut two hours from employees' work week. That's not necessary now, King said.

"Department heads found ways to keep that from happening," King said.

"But nobody is getting a raise, step-(raise) or otherwise," King said. Longevity, cost of living adjustments and regular raises are not budgeted.

The pressure to cut funding revealed two avenues of funding to volunteer fire departments and a sensitive issue, as perceived by some.

As Neill and King lauded the department heads for their fiscal restraint, and Commissioner Jimmy Stitt and others complimented the budget committee, those leaders and others noted it was worthwhile to avoid total elimination of grants to volunteer fire departments.

The grants pay for equipment that wears out such as turnout gear. While the $4,500 grants had been $3,000 and lower, they've been dropped to $1,500.

But still, the county will receive and pay bills for the departments' fuel, utilities and firefighters' health insurance. One official, speaking on a condition of anonymity, said that basic support might be seen as unfair to residents who also pay municipal property taxes.

"I don't see it as an issue," Commissioner Don Ledford said. "It's like police, and we have a sheriff's department. I see those emergency type folks working together. If we had some type of calamity, they'd work together...

"Ambulance service, same type deal," Ledford said. "I just don't see it as an issue. People have to work together; unfortunately, we have some folks who don't want to work together - case in point - solid waste. What's disappointing is that folks don't care about the others in the community. We need to learn to work together."

Stitt felt the same way, but cited different reasons to fund volunteers' insurance, fuel and utilities.

Ownership of trucks was a way to overcome the insurance issue and fuel has been seen the same way, he indicated.

Meanwhile, Chapel Hill's Fire Department responds to calls beyond its corporate line, Stitt said. Other leaders in the county, knowledgeable on the subject, noted other city departments help rural volunteers.

Nearly a quorum of commissioners attended their public hearing on the tax rate on Thursday, according to Ledford. A quorum is not required for the commission to hold a public hearing.