05/13/08 — Duplin is looking at budget balancing

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Duplin is looking at budget balancing

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 13, 2008 2:28 PM

KENANSVILLE -- A risk management/wellness program for county employees, continuing efforts to collect delinquent property taxes and an appeal to state legislators for authority to garnishee wages to collect unpaid fees top the list of ways Duplin County Manager Mike Aldridge is looking at to help balance the county budget.

Missing from that list is any increase in the county's tax rate of 79 cents per $100 valuation. Although county commissioners have not discussed the tax rate, some have indicated they do not want an increase in property taxes this year.

Earlier this month, Aldridge presented commissioners with a $43.7 million general fund draft budget. The draft, which did not include any monies from the fund balance, is $6 million out of balance.

Meanwhile, the county will not have the benefit of the $800,000 that a proposed one-quarter sales tax increase could have brought into the county for education. Duplin voters defeated that issue 5,849 to 4,064 in last week's primary election.

The sales tax was not a factor in preparing the budget draft.

Of all of the strategies being considered, the employee risk management/wellness program carries the most potential for saving the county money, Aldridge said.

It will cost the county about $50,000 to implement the plan -- about $100 per employee.

"There is no downside to the plan," Aldridge said. "It is not only the bottom line in terms of cost and savings, but keeping a healthy workforce makes employees happier and more productive."

He added that the plan should help reduce the number of sick days taken, absenteeism, doctor visits and the cost of medication. It should also help to reduce injuries and the number of medical claims.

The county first began looking at such a program last year, but was unable to pull everything together in time to include it in the current budget. Complementing the plan is the county's decision to move to a self-insurance program.

The county health department would manage the risk management/ wellness program in which employees would undergo tests for such health-risk issues as high-blood pressure and diabetes. The employees would have a counselor with whom to work with about correcting or controlling any health issues.

Aldridge said the county might offer some perks such as "gift bags and trinkets" to encourage employee participation.

Employees who do not participate or who fail to manage their health issues could end up paying more for their health care.

Aldridge also said the county will continue its "aggressive" efforts to collect delinquent taxes.

The county currently has a collection rate of 97 percent.

"We are making every effort to collect the taxes that are owed to us," he said.

Those efforts include property foreclosures, he said.

Counties may collect delinquent taxes that are up to 10 years past due. Any taxes not collected before the 10-year deadline have to be written off.

Aldridge said that the county does not foreclose on property tax that is only one or two years in arrears.

About one-half of the property owners, once notified that the county is ready to foreclose, pay what is owed, he said.

Aldridge called foreclosure a "last-ditch" effort to collect taxes.

Many times property that is foreclosed on is tied up in an estate, he said. In those cases, the property might be owned by many people, some of whom cannot be located.

"A lot of the time the family wants to see us foreclose so the property can be sold free and clear," he said.

Aldridge said once the county forecloses on the property that it tries to sell it as quickly as possible in order to get it back on the tax books.

He added that more often than not the actual amount of taxes owed, even over a period of several years, is just a few hundred dollars. But over a period of time those amounts add up, he added.

Unlike what it can do about collecting past-due property taxes, the county is limited in collecting on certain past-due fees.

It is that limitation that commissioners hope they can convince state lawmakers to eliminate.

For example, the county cannot garnishee wages to collect overdue fees owed to the county health department.

The only fees that the county can garnishee wages to collect are taxes, ambulance service and water.

Aldridge said that the county probably could recoup tens of thousands of dollars if it had the authority to collect on past-due fees for all of the other services provided by the county.

"We tried last year, but met with some reluctance (from legislators)," Aldridge said.

He said it appeared that some state lawmakers thought that giving the county such authority might discourage people from seeking the county services they need.

"If we have the ability to charge for the services then we should be able to collect," Aldridge said.