06/30/04 — Fremont hikes taxes 15 cents to meet deficit

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Fremont hikes taxes 15 cents to meet deficit

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on June 30, 2004 2:03 PM

FREMONT -- Fremont residents will pay 30 percent more in property taxes in a budget approved Tuesday night by the town board.

But the board cut a proposed 25 percent increase in sewer rates to 20 percent and eliminated a 2 percent hike in electricity rates, during a public hearing in Town Hall.

The board's actions came after 13 people spoke, most in opposition to the proposed 15-cent property tax increase. The rate will go from 50 to 65 cents.

The vote to accept the budget, however, was not unanimous. Aldermen W.T. Smith and Harold Cuddington opposed Alderman Billy Harvey's motion in a 4-2 vote.

New Town Administrator Kerry McDuffie had opened the meeting by explaining the need for the tax increase.

He said the town had lost $431,000 in its general fund in four years. Its surplus had gone from $299,000 in 2000 to a $132,000 deficit in May.

The surplus in the water and sewer fund also had nose-dived from $125,000 in 2000 to a deficit of $218,000 in May -- a drop of $343,000.

"What we're doing now," McDuffie said, "is to have a balanced budget so we won't dig a hole any deeper."

Most services would be maintained at the current level, he said, without any spending increases.

McDuffie also had asked Vance Holloman of the Local Government Commission to address the audience about Fremont's plight. Holloman said his agency had been concerned about the town's finances for two years. He said the general fund and water and sewer fund were in bad shape. He also said the town's savings in 2002 were only 4 percent of the budget, less than the state's recommended 8 percent.

"You can't continue to operate that way," he said. "ƒYou're at a point now where you have no where else to go. ƒ You can make additional cuts in the general fund, but any will impact the level of service."

His only recommendation for water and sewer was to raise rates to cover needed repairs for infiltration. But Holloman admitted that the town's rates were already high.

"No staff wants to come to this point," he said. "But your choices are limited."

When the meeting was opened for public comment, Gene Fields, a furniture store owner, declared taxpayers have rights, too. He urged the board to slow the increases and cut services, if needed.

"Give us a chance to grow with you," he said. "ƒGive us something we can live with."

James Hare asked why the town was being charged for stormwater sent to the Goldsboro sewer plant. McDuffie said the town's older sewer pipes were made of clay, which absorbs rainwater and crumbles more easily.

Priscilla Cummings said residents were supposed to be charged $250 for repairs to their service lines. But she said her bill was $500.

"If I had known my sewer line would've cost $500, I would have had my son dig a line through town," Mrs. Cummings said. "I won't pay it. ƒ I was born and raised here, and I've never seen anything like this."

Sam Pierce, a former alderman, asked why the town's 65-cent tax rate would bring in only about $20,000 more than last year's 50-cent rate. He said he was told that each extra penny would mean an additional $4,700 in revenue.

The town's problems "didn't happen at once," Mayor Devone Jones said in closing the hearing that lasted for about an hour. "It will take time to clean it up."

McDuffie then recommended that the board set the basic sewer rate at $8.54, a 20 percent increase. The Goldsboro-Wayne Municipal Airport and schools also will be charged the same rate. He also recommended no change in the electrical rates.

After the budget was passed, Alderman Leroy Ruffin said, "I don't know how many years it took Fremont to get in this situation, but it will take more than one year to get it back."

Mooring, who seconded the budget motion, said he apologized to the citizens, not for what was done Tuesday but for what had not been done in the past.

In other business, the board did the following:

*Agreed to pay Peters and White of Chesapeake, Va., $79,297 for its final installment for the sewer line to Goldsboro. This figure was much lower than the company's request. But the line was completed almost a year late.

*Passed a budget amendment to reconcile figures for the current fiscal year.