County moves closer to tax increase

Friday, July 15, 2005

A county property tax increase is looking more and more likely after Bedford County Board of Commissioners' budget and finance committee's meeting Thursday night.

The county's overall property tax rate is $2.49 per $100 assessed value. It has been raised only once since the 1980s -- a 26-cent increase in 2003. Even so, some county residents complain that their county taxes go up each year, perhaps because of changes in their property appraisal.

The county has managed to cope with rising costs and demand for new services by eating into its fund balance -- the fiscal "cushion" maintained in each budget. But, in the case of the county general budget, that fund balance is gone. Anticipating a problem, commissioners worked over the past year to try to diversify the tax base by proposing tax sources other than the property tax. But voters turned down a wheel tax last month and the state legislature has been dragging its feet about allowing an "adequate facilities tax" on new construction. The county's most recent attempt, a fee tied to building inspections, is facing legal challenges.

The finance committee had directed various county agencies to submit new budgets which were not only less than many of their original requests, but 5 percent less than the amount they received in the 2004-2005 fiscal year.

But several of the agencies the committee heard from Thursday night say their budgets are already lean and that they can't cut much further without doing away with essential county services.

"I cannot, in good conscience, support a 5 percent cut in my existing budget due to increases in services and demands made on this department," wrote Sheriff Clay Parker in a letter to the committee. Parker also noted that in neighboring Rutherford County, the sheriff's department has been forced four times to sue the county commission for adequate funding.

Register of Deeds Johnny Reed also wrote that he had nothing else to cut.

"Bedford County is currently having an explosion of new homes being built, and refinancing of home loans, and this causes a very heavy workload in the Register of Deeds' office. In order to stay current with the growth in our community, it will take every dollar requested."

General Sessions and Juvenile Judge Charles Rich agreed to a 5 percent cut in his existing operations but is still insisting on adding two new positions in the Juvenile Court staff.

"I feel like we have to have them," said Rich, "or quite honestly we wouldn't have asked for them."

Bedford County Emergency Medical Services said that a cut would force it to do without two ambulance remounts -- and even if it could squeak by this year, next year the county would have to remount not only those two ambulances but one or two more at the same time. For this reason, BCEMS would like the county to cut 5 percent, not from its overall budget, but from its net cost to the taxpayers (after subtracting patient revenue). Committee members were not pleased with this suggestion.

Bedford County Probation Officer Rory Griffy noted that his rent increased substantially over the past year and said that if he eliminated a position, he would also be eliminating the revenue brought in by that position, and so the county would be no better off.

Bedford County Animal Control, which has completed its first year of operations, said that it could, in fact, comply with the 5 percent cut. Bedford County Election Commission had already proposed a much-smaller budget this year than last year -- simply because there aren't as many elections to conduct this year.

Bedford County Mayor Jimmy Woodson said that cutting his budget would require him to cut out his part-time office help.

Volunteer Fire Services Inc. is not technically a county agency and so the finance committee wasn't actually scheduled to discuss it Thursday night. But commissioner and VFSI director Mark Thomas said the only way for him to cut that percentage out of his budget would be to cut the new personnel he added last year -- and Thomas said the county's rapid growth means more fires to fight.

Committee members said that BCEMS and VFSI need to explore ways to save money by training VFSI firefighters as emergency medical technicians. That won't help in the current budget situation, however.

The school system, which is the largest single component of the county budget, has its own fund separate from the general fund. School officials are not requesting a property tax increase for their fund this year, but it remains to be seen whether the state will allow the current school budget proposal under its "maintenance of effort" law. If the state were to reject the proposed school budget, the county might have to raise taxes there too.

If the county were to fund all of the general fund agencies at their original requests, and leave a $500,000 fund balance in the general fund, it would take more than $1.7 million in new revenue.

Committee members say they don't want to touch the revenues from the recent sale of Bedford County Medical Center for operating expenses. But they left open the possibility of using the interest earned on those revenues, this year only, to help build up the fund balance.

The committee also voted to freeze the county's contributions to non-profit agencies at their current levels and not to allow new requests from Community Clinic, the United Veterans Council or the Chamber of Commerce Industrial Development Committee. VFSI was excluded from this motion and will be considered separately.

The committee will hold its next special called meeting 5 p.m. July 21 in the third floor courtroom at the county courthouse.

"It may take something drastic to get people's attention," said committee member J.D. "Bo" Wilson. "We need money."