01/12/09 — Leaders in Duplin try to avoid tax increase

View Archive

Leaders in Duplin try to avoid tax increase

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on January 12, 2009 1:46 PM

Duplin taxpayers will find out in a few months how well their board of county commissioners fares in its battle to keep taxes from going up.

But commissioners have decided to meet the challenge head-on and already are meeting with the managers of county departments in an effort to trim expenditures.

Board Chairman Cary Turner of Beautancus said property owners can't stand an increase.

The current tax rate is 79 cents on every $100 worth of property. But commissioners are being pressed to increase school funding and improve the county jail, among other needs, and they will be hard pressed to avoid a tax hike to balance the budget, as required by law.

"I think the taxpayers would be relieved if the rate at least stayed the same and didn't go up," Turner said. "The days of plenty are over. It's crunch time. We are going to have to cut to survive."

Turner said he believes the county can maintain the existing tax rate and still overcome the county's financial challenges.

But will commissioners be able to pull it off?

"It depends on how much grit the board members have," he said.

It is going to require sacrifices and some new and fresh ideas, he said.

A new budget must be in place by July 1.

That's why commissioners are starting early on next year's budget. Department heads are looking for ways to cut their budgets next year and have started meeting with commissioners to find ways to trim costs.

The immediate mission is to figure out how to get through the rest of the current fiscal year without dipping into reserves any more than the county already has.

And although there will be sacrifices to get through the current financial crisis, Turner believes it can be done without having to lay off any employees. He said he believes there are departments that can be trimmed without having to go through such drastic measures.

"I don't plan on laying off anybody. We have enough people leaving, we can do it by attrition," he said.

Department heads are saying employees are leaving for higher paying jobs because the county's money problems are keeping them from being able to pay competitive salaries.

Part of the county's money crunch is from a two percent cut in state funding this year. And next year, Turner said, county officials are expecting another three percent in state cuts.

The departments are looking for that 5 percent of fat to cut out of their budgets.

But not every department has another five percent left to cut. Some are already spread dangerously thin.

Turner said those department heads are needed at the table, too. It's going to take teamwork to bring the county through this crisis.

"Even those departments with skeleton crews can bring ideas to the table about where cuts can be made. It doesn't necessarily have to be in their own department. It can be anywhere in the county," Turner said. "We are desperate now, and we're going to have to listen to all suggestions we can hear, weight them out and see if they have potential."