05/25/11 — Duplin ponders tax hike

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Duplin ponders tax hike

By Aaron Moore
Published in News on May 25, 2011 1:52 PM

KENANSVILLE -- With a $3.4 million budget deficit for the coming year, Duplin County officials said their only options are to raise taxes or reach into the county's shrinking savings account.

After reviewing a budget proposal for 2011-12 at a work session Monday morning, several commissioners agreed that raising taxes might be the only way to avoid some crippling cuts.

"We've got to decide what we're going to do, raise taxes or take it all out of the fund balance and pray for a good year next year," said Chairman Frances Parks.

But officials said simply hoping for the economy to get better is a luxury Duplin County can't afford.

"I think we're setting ourselves up for a doozy of an increase next year," said County Manager Mike Aldridge. "You won't be able to cut your way out of it next year."

Commissioner Timothy Smith said the county could have to raise taxes as much as 10 to 14 percent next year if it doesn't increase them this year.

But while raising taxes might help avoid cuts, Commissioner Harold Raynor said he is afraid it might leave homeowners in a tight spot.

"I think I can pay my taxes, but there's some people that can't," Raynor said. "There's some people that all they can do is meet their mortgage and car payments, and they're gonna meet them versus pay taxes."

Citizens failing to pay taxes is one of the reasons the commissioners said the county is down so much on revenue. In reviewing tax collection records, the commissioners found that some taxes from as far back as 2001 have not been paid.

Officials said once unpaid taxes are 10 years old, they can no longer be collected.

"There are some counties that if you get six months behind, you get notices," Smith said.

Duplin County's tax collection rate was 95.79 percent last year, slightly below the average of other counties.

"There's something wrong with that," said Commissioner Jessie Ladson.

Without higher taxes, or at least more people paying their taxes, Smith said 2012 could see cuts to some important public services such as the county library and services to the elderly.

"It's not what I want to do," Smith said. "You're going to have to increase the taxes or decrease expenditures, it's just that simple."

One expense the commissioners said they are having difficulty meeting is the 40 percent of budgeted tax collection they are required to pay the Board of Education to offset a lawsuit the school board filed in 2008.

Based on their agreement, the school board receives 40 percent of the county's tax collection each year. And because the agreement sets no time limit, Smith said this is a recurring expense the county can't afford.

Among several proposed cuts to offset these expenses, the commissioners proposed cutting Emergency Medical Services from eight stations to six, a move EMS director Rob McDuffie said could result in several layoffs.

The commissioners suggested that county EMS services could operate a non-emergency transport system as a means of generating revenue.

McDuffie said it was an option, but not a favorable one.

"I would recommend strongly that you do not go that route," he said. "It would plainly take a private business and put them out of business."

McDuffie added that even though a non-emergency ambulance system might generate revenue, it still might not pay for itself.

The commissioners said they would postpone making any decisions until McDuffie presented them with a business plan showing the costs and benefits.

The commissioners also postponed any final decisions on taxes or the budget until after a public hearing June 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ed Emory Auditorium.

In other business, the board also gave Economic Development their blessing to begin searching for a new director. The current director, Heather Beard, said she will go on maternity leave around August.