06/12/07 — Wayne County will ask for 3 cents, not 5

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Wayne County will ask for 3 cents, not 5

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 12, 2007 1:46 PM

Wayne County's property tax rate might not be going up by five cents after all.

On Monday, after listening to the comments and suggestions of the county commissioners during the last few weeks, Wayne County Manager Lee Smith released a series of 2007-08 budget amendments that would reduce the tax increase from five cents to 2.9 cents.

Currently, the county's tax rate is 73.5 cents per $100 value. If the revised version of the budget is adopted, the rate would increase to 76.4 cents.

To reach that point, Smith had to adjust several areas of the budget.

Under his new proposal, the county's economic development reserve fund, which was scheduled to increase to about $1 million in preparation for future projects, would remain at its 2006-07 level, saving about $250,000.

Smith said that the lower amount would be enough to cover the county's planned expenses for the upcoming year. It does not affect the Wayne County Development Alliance. The reserve fund is used for such projects as the construction of shell buildings.

Smith also found another $850,000 in the budget by deferring repairs to one of Wayne Community College's two damaged roofs for a year.

He explained that after talking with college officials, they decided to tackle the most seriously damaged roof first.

The other budget reductions came from a decision to delay the county Health Department's $175,000 scanning project -- digitizing paper records -- until a future fiscal year, cutting $15,000 from the county manager's budget for professional services, fixing a $10,000 clerical error and reducing the Wayne County Historical Society's funding from $15,000 back to its 2006-07 level of $12,000.

The latter change, Smith explained, should not affect the society's operating expenses. The additional money was scheduled to go for a memorial garden at the Wayne County Museum, which he is hoping the organization will be able to fund with either grants or private money.

Smith did add, however, two small expenses -- about $1,200 in salary for the county Soil and Water director as a result of a late reclassification and about $15,000 to help continue to fund the insurance of Wayne County Public Library employees.

Those changes resulted in more than $1.2 million in savings.

"I talked to all of the commissioners individually and it was their general feeling they'd like to have a reduction in the rate, so I looked through the budget to find what was the most reasonable and what would have the least impact," Smith said. "Whenever you begin to cut, you begin to accept some risks -- like with Wayne Community College, because that roof is leaking. You just hope it doesn't get worse."

He added, though, that it would have been hard to go much deeper.

The remaining 2.9 cent tax increase, plus the county's original $890,000 cut in operating expenses, he explained, will pay for the $725,000 increase for Wayne County Public Schools, the $1.7 million Medicaid jump and other slight bumps for mandated social services programs.

Overall, the county's operating budget is approximately $107.6 million dollars.

"It's not where we want to be," Smith said. "It's not very comfortable offering up a tax increase, but literally, if I was asked to go any deeper, I'd be looking at which county services to cut."

And that's something, Commissioner Atlas Price said he doesn't want to see happen.

"Certainly I'm glad to see (the tax increase) go down some. There are a lot of people in Wayne County who simply cannot afford a tax increase right now," he said. "But I think we're at a point about as far down as we can go without cutting services and we can't afford to do that right now."

The real help, Price continued, will be if the state General Assembly can come through with some sort of Medicaid relief and a local option sales tax. County officials, however, have been skeptical about the prospects of both proposals.

And so, Commissioner Efton Sager continued, with about three weeks left before the county is required to have its budget in place, discussions are likely to continue.

"A lot of efforts have been made to cut it down and I appreciate the cuts that have been made," he said. "But I think we can look at some others. We're not through yet. Nobody wants to raise taxes."

A public hearing on the budget will be held at 9:15 a.m., Tuesday, June 19. Copies of the budget are available at the county's public libraries and online at www.waynegov.com. Comments also can be made online.