Does Warren County need a 28-cent property tax increase?
It depends on who you ask.
Carl E. Bouldin, the longest serving member of the Warren County Commission, says yes. He says the money is badly needed for improvement projects, most notably new roofs for the courthouse and Warren County Administrative Offices.
“If I vote to raise taxes for you, then I vote to raise taxes for me, and I sure don’t want a 28-cent tax increase,” said Bouldin, who is chair of the Building and Grounds Committee. “But I believe we really need to get some money to put roofs on these buildings because it’s something that has to be done.”
Commissioner Blaine Wilcher sees it differently. He says all county departments have extra money left over at the end of the budget year, sometimes as much as 17 percent of their total budget, and that adds up to millions.
“Right now I’m not convinced we need a tax increase,” said Wilcher. “Based on the numbers they’ve given us, there’s not a deficit there. I don’t see it.”
Much has been said about the county not having a property tax increase for 16 straight years, but the overall county budget and annual county expenditures have soared during that span by more than 40 percent.
In the budget year ending in 2005, the county had $50.5 million in total expenditures, according to Finance Department director Justin Cotten.
In the budget year ending in 2010, the county’s total expenditures were $60.6 million.
In the budget year ending in 2015, the county’s total expenditures had climbed to $66.5 million.
In the budget year ending in 2018, county government had $72.8 million in expenditures – a 44 percent increase from 2005.
The reason the county budget has been able to climb without a local tax increase, Cotten said, is because the state’s contribution has increased and because the county is getting more property tax collections due to new residential and commercial developments.
New recurring expenditures have been requested for the upcoming 2019-2020 budget year.
For schools, there’s a $1,000 raise for teachers and money for more computers. For the Sheriff’s Department, there’s funding for 16 new jailers and four new deputies that comes to an extra $940,000 a year after salaries and benefits.
In doing the math, Cotten believes it adds up to a tax increase being necessary.
“The state wants us to keep 10 percent of our total expenditures in fund balance to make sure that at any point during the year we’ll be able to make our payments from month to month,” said Cotten. “It looks like we’re going to be within $1,000 of that threshold based on budgeted numbers and that’s with a 28-cent tax increase.”
Cotten said budgeted numbers and actual numbers never align exactly. He said county departments spend between 83 percent and 92 percent of their total budget.
That means a department with a $1 million budget will actually spend $830,000 on the low end and $920,000 on the high end. The money that remains unspent, between $80,000 and $170,000, is then returned to the general fund.
One main question Warren County taxpayers are asking is will the 28-cent tax increase pass? With 24 commissioners, it will take 13 votes to pass outright. Should it end in a 12-12 tie, County Executive Jimmy Haley would cast the deciding vote and he has spoken in favor of a tax increase thus far.
“One day I think it will pass and the next day I think it will fail,” said Wilcher. “It’s going to be real close. People could change their minds due to emotions.”
Bouldin says he has long voiced support for much smaller property tax increases, around 5 cents, and doing that type of increase for several years in a row. He said that would be easier to absorb than a sting of 28 cents in one shot.
“I’ve been trying to get roofs on these buildings for five or six years and there’s never been enough money so I say we do something to get the money,” said Bouldin. “We need the money before we run into some real major problems.”
The full Warren County Commission is scheduled to meet this coming Monday, July 15, to vote on the property tax increase.