06/27/07 — It's official, but barely: Budget, tax hike pass

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It's official, but barely: Budget, tax hike pass

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 27, 2007 1:46 PM

Voting 4 to 3 after a somewhat heated discussion, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners narrowly approved its $107.6 million budget for the coming fiscal year.

Included in it is a 2.9-cent tax increase, which will raise the county's property tax rate from 73.5 cents per $100 value to 76.4 cents.

In real terms, that will mean a $45 increase in taxes for a home worth $150,000.

Fire district taxes also went up in the Oakland Volunteer Fire Department area -- 5.5 cents to 7 cents -- and in the Grantham Volunteer Fire Department area -- 7 cents to 8 cents.

And while the budget does include a $890,000 decrease in county operating expenses despite a 2.8 percent growth in revenues, it also increases spending on public school operations by $725,000 and on Medicaid by $1.7 million -- the two reasons most cited by county officials for creating the need for the higher tax rate.

But despite more than two months of wrangling and several long workshops, including one in which the board and the county manager went over the budget line item by line item, not all the commissioners showed up Tuesday morning ready to vote in favor of the recommended proposal.

"Mr. (County Manager Lee) Smith and his staff have done a great job, but that doesn't mean we can't do our own thinking," Commissioner Efton Sager said.

Opposing the budget were Commissioners Andy Anderson, Jack Best and Sager.

Commission Chairman John Bell and Commissioners Atlas Price, Bud Gray and J.D. Evans voted for it.

"I think we could have gotten the budget down to a 1 cent (tax) increase," Anderson said. "There were a dozen areas we could have cut."

Among those, he and Sager agreed, were the security system at the county Health Department and the county's sewer rates.

For most people, though, those rates were already reduced by about 45 percent to $9.70 per 1,000 gallons. Other fees remained relatively stable with the landfill tipping fee staying steady at $40 per ton and building permit fees going up an average of only $5.

Anderson also said that with the state legislature working to implement some sort of Medicaid relief, the county could have gambled on that allocation being smaller than originally predicted.

"We don't know what's going to happen, but let's take a little bit of risk -- not a whole lot, but a little bit of risk," he said.

Anderson's final suggestion was for the county to end the 6.5 percent teacher supplement pay on June 30 and reinstate it on July 1 with the new provision that it be given only to teachers in the classroom.

The money saved, he said, could then either be used to lower the tax increase, give the teachers a higher supplement or help fund other initiatives sought by the school system, such as several new dropout prevention programs.

Best, meanwhile, voiced his concern about the amount of money going into social service programs, but acknowledged most of those are directed by the state and federal governments.

His real problem with passing the budget Tuesday, he said, was that there was still a large unknown about what the state would do with Medicaid relief, and so he proposed -- but did not move -- that the county wait until the end of July to vote.

"I do not believe in this budget, and I can't vote for it," Best said. "The whole budget's not bad; I believe in 98 percent of it, but it's the 2 percent I can't vote for.

"With the uncertainty of the state budget on Medicaid, which is where the majority of our (tax) increase is going, it would be better to suspend our vote on the budget and continue this (2006-07) budget into July. Then we can vote after we see what the state's going to do specifically."

The other four members of the board, however, said that it was too late to be discussing wholesale changes to Medicaid funding or teacher supplements, and that they needed to go ahead and approve the budget.

"That should have been done two months or month ago," Price said. "There was time to discuss those things."

Anderson countered, though, that those issues had been brought up before and that there was no need to rush to pass the budget Tuesday morning. In all, the meeting took about an hour.

"We could have gone three or four hours. We could have recessed and come back tomorrow, next week, next month," Anderson said. "We can't just follow the crowd, wherever the other 99 counties go. I want Wayne County to be a progressive county, to be a leader in this state."

But, Bell said that he feels they did the best they could and that they have the best budget possible.

"I feel as comfortable as you can be under the circumstances," he said. "Eighty-six percent of the budget comes from mandates from the state and the federal government.

"We've been working on this budget since January. If it had been possible to go back in and cut more, I would have been all for that. I don't like increasing taxes, but there's nothing in this budget we can cut without cutting services or getting rid of employees or damaging the future growth of the county.

"You can't keep discussing the budget when you know it's the best you can do. It's the best budget we could do right now."