County eyes budget
By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 22, 2011 1:46 PM
Wayne County resident Willie Draughon pulls his pockets inside out in a demonstration of his frustration with the county's property revaluation and proposed tax rate during a county commissioners meeting Tuesday. The board was discussing the 2011-12 budget.
A public hearing on the county budget Tuesday morning quickly turned into a referendum on the higher property values returned by the recent countywide revaluation as 16 mostly retired Wayne County residents paraded in front of county commissioners to argue that the values are out of line with the economy.
Many of the speakers were retired state or federal employees, and/or had served in the military and said they had not received cost-of-living increases in either retirement fund for several years.
Several said a revenue-neutral tax rate would be closer to 68 or 69 cents per $100 of property value and not the 70.25 cents included in the county's $158 million budget proposal.
Some of them had even spoken June 7 against what at the time was a 72.6 tax rate.
The audience of about 40 people applauded as the speakers finished up their comments. Several used the public comment portion of the meeting to assure commissioners they had not spoken as adversaries, but rather as an electorate questioning those who represent them.
Commissioners took no action following the hour-long public hearing. They will meet in special session Thursday at 5 p.m. in their meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex to consider adoption of the budget.
However, Commissioners Jack Best and Steve Keen said they would not vote for the budget.
Best said commissioners should lead by example and cut $25,000 from their budget. He was critical of his fellow board members whom he said were unwilling to do so and who had resisted cuts to their salaries and benefits.
He went on to blast the board of education because he said it used funds intended for teacher supplements to provide a $6,500 bonus for schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor.
The district, when contacted this morning, denied that the funds came from teacher supplements.
Best said he would not vote for the budget until he had a breakdown of the school funding.
"I can tell you, that like Mr. Best, I will not vote for this budget," Keen said.
Keen said he had made that decision three days ago and knows that there are other areas of the budget that can be cut.
During the meeting Commissioner Dr. Sandra McCullen asked County Attorney Borden Parker to review the process by which people could appeal property values.
After the regular meeting had ended, commissioners briefly convened as the Board of Equalization and Review, but there were no property value appeals to be heard.
Tax Administrator David Ward told commissioners that so far his office had received just 950 informal appeals -- less than 2 percent of the some 64,000 pieces of property assessed during the revaluation.
Because of the countywide property revaluation, the state required county officials to advertise a revenue-neutral tax rate -- a rate that is estimated to produce revenue for the next fiscal year equal to the revenue for the current fiscal year if no reappraisal had occurred.
Using the state formula, the revenue-neutral tax rate for Wayne County would be 70.25 cents per $100 of property value.
However, in his budget message presented earlier this month to commissioners, Smith had recommended that the current property tax rate be reduced from 76.4 cents to 72.6 cents, which in effect would have been an increase of 2.35 cents.
Ann Sullivan, wearing shirt that had "enough" printed on it, was among those who said that the budget was not revenue neutral.
"I figured it up and it would be about 68 cents or maybe 69 cents where it would be revenue neutral," she said. "I will end up paying $90 more than I did before. I was looking at human resources and the Health Department. Have you found out how much of these services we have in the Health Department going to illegal aliens and how much that affects our budget?
"I would really like to know. Do they keep up with statistics or do they even ask? The other thing I want to talk about if you look at the fees and assessments that have gone into Wayne County, we have added quite a bit of fees and that is the new form of taxes -- fees."
She also questioned how many county employees had received raises last year and whether the discussion had been in open session.
Roger Buchanan said that a parcel of land he owns was mostly swamp and brush, but that it had gone up by $17,000 in the revaluation while the house he lives in went up by $42,000.
"I don't know of anybody who would deny that housing values have gone down," he said. "How in the world then can you assess mine way up by $42,000? You know as well as I do that I can't get that for it."
Wayne County Republican Party Chairman Bob Jackson cited reports that the housing market is worse than it was in the Great Depression.
He questioned how the rest of the country could be down by 33 percent, while the revaluation increased values here by 27 percent.
"It seems to me that our leaders in Wayne County could look at Wayne County as part of this great country we live in and know that we are hurting and hurting bad in some cases," he said. "We do not need a tax increase at the moment."
"I am broke. I am tapped out," Willie Draughon said as he turned his pants pockets inside out. "Economically, we are in is a bad situation and I don't see it getting any better and raising taxes is not the way to make it better."
Realtor Hal Keck reiterated comments he made two week ago before commissioners that the tax assessor "has gone overboard."
"Somebody has got to get control of this person," he said. "They have gone out, evaluated properties without, I think, what really exists out there."
Keck said that property had gone up six of the past eight years, but that had fallen during the last two.
He said people feel like they, "are getting screwed, and I think we are."
"I think somebody needs to talk to these tax assessors and find out where he is coming up with these values."
Patty Daly agreed.
"I don't think the assessor knows what county he is in," she said.
Roy Bucholz told commissioners they needed to start looking "inside" for efficiencies of operations to reduce the budget.
For example the free flu shots, he said.
"There is no such thing as a free flu shot. I pay for them," he said. "I look around and we have the huge buses now, not the small buses, that are still empty. I pay for that."
Bucholz said when he asked about that, he was told the bus system was mostly paid for through state and federal funds.
"I pay for that," he said. "They said federal grants. I also pay for that. Everything I pay for. There is no such thing as a free ride. Efficiency has to start inside."
Bucholz said he had worked for the federal government for 30 years and knew what the mentality was like.
"When they leave home they forget all about fiscal management, they just ask for more," he said.
Bucholz received a round of applause when he asked commissioners if they could hold their meetings on Saturdays or in the afternoon when working people could attend them.
"The people you are taking the money from are the people who have to work right now," he said.
Commissioners last week trimmed $1,492,005 and a proposed 2.35-cent increase in the tax rate from the $158 million budget proposal.
Commissioners offered up most of the cuts during a more-than-five-hour budget workshop last week. The remaining were added by County Manager Lee Smith.
Keen said he wanted the public to know that his fellow commissioners did not speak for him during last week's budget session concerning a consensus of allowing Smith to look for additional cuts.
The budget reduces the solid waste user fee from $60 to $45 and does not provide for any across-the-board salary increases and maintains the county's hiring freeze.