Tonight is the so called “Public Hearing” on the Stokes County Budget. I’ve learned from an official source that the “rules” for citizen engagement on this matter will be limited to a simple three minute one sided comment….similar to the “Public Speakers” from the floor held during each County Commissioner meeting. No opportunity to ask questions about assumptions or priorities…or to correct errors and misperceptions. No opportunity to question Department Leadership about their needs and wants. All in all, we the people are presented a nice little package to accept at face value….or not. I hereby provide this letter via email to the Board of Commissioners, local media, and selected social media for what it’s worth.
Our Interim County Manager (when do Commissioners decide it’s an important enough job to fill with a permanent hire, by the way?) has indicated several things in his Budget message:
(1) No Tax increase will be required (2) Sales Tax Revenues will be unchanged from last year (3) Property tax revenues will only show a modest 1% improvement over last year
Our School Board similarly has provided me information that enrollment over the past 5 consecutive years has been declining. They are projecting “flat” (no change) in enrollment this coming year. It may actually decline again. Did not the Board of Commissioners approve a DOUBLE DIGIT increase last year, too?
These assumptions would lead one to believe there is no justifiable reason for significant growth in the County Budget unless we are unnecessarily growing the size and scope and cost of government just because we can. The Budget we see before us not only significantly raises the size, scope, and cost of government but does so to the tune of double digit increases. At a minimum, a SEVEN and ONE HALF CENT dip into the County Fund Balance will be the “smoke and mirrors” that allows this Budget to balance. As of yet we do NOT know the full extent the current 2017-2018 County Budget will dip into the County Fund Balance to pay for this year’s (in) balance.
Further, keep in mind all Stokes County Real Property was reappraised in the past year. A “revenue neutral” tax rate was not approved after this reappraisal and as a result, Stokes County Property tax owners absorbed an approximate $600,000 tax increase without “raising taxes”.
Are Stokes County Commissioners about to kill the “Golden Goose”? Let’s hope not.
Buried in the details of the Budget (yes, I’ve downloaded and reviewed the whole thing!) are examples of priorities or lack thereof. I’ll close by highlighting a mere three or four that caught my interest:
(1) The Sheriff’s Department, unlike Sales Tax Revenues or Property Tax Revenues is projected to show nearly 80% revenue growth in the coming year. Add up the various components of income sources derived from the Sheriff and one might draw the conclusion Sheriff Mike Marshall ought to have been selected as our County’s new Economic Development Director. $197,000 of Approved 2017-18 Revenues multiply to $349,000 in the projected new Budget. WOW! I’m particularly impressed with the fees assumed for
Handgun Permits and Concealed Carry Permits, too. Good to be living among like-minded people although I certainly believe one should not have to pay a fee to exercise Divine Rights. All in all, any such income NOT received in the coming year will only add to the draw from the County Fund Balance. Let’s hope this and other revenues are not plug numbers meant to keep the remaining Fund Balance from falling (on paper) below the 25% lower limit Commissioners suggested in their guidance earlier last month.
(2) I will be the first to admit I cannot keep track of all the SIGNIFICANT changes to income sources and costs pertaining to the Social Services/EMS/Health components of the Budget. Let’s hope a thorough examination will be conducted by those competent to do so. Five, Six, and even SEVEN figure changes are bouncing around back and forth in both Revenues and Expenses in the Budgets. Unrecognized errors in these areas may result in significant, unplanned cost overruns that again will be drawn out of the County Fund Balance to make good.
(3) School Current Expenses become their own little pot of funds in the name of transparency???? The interim County Manager slices off a portion of the double digit request from the School Board, but leaves a double digit increase in place. Again, one must ask why? Enrollments are declining and the system is now well over capacity. The County Commission is populated with former School Board members….do they still have blinders on? What’s wrong with the concept of doing less with less? Productivity? Efficiency? Necessary Downsizing? When it’s “For the Children” apparently such concepts become the third rail of local politics. However, it is this current Board’s responsibility to touch this “third rail” when necessary. It is necessary now.
(4) Finally, after diligently searching I was able to find a section of local government responsibility the interim County Manager feels has been more than adequately addressed in the past and therefore warrants a cut in operating funds. Of course I’m speaking of our “envy of the State’s” Animal Control facility/Department. The same facility that failed a State inspection a few years ago and, except for age and a few cosmetic fixes from that time, still unchanged. A few months back the Sheriff made a request, approved by the Commissioners, to provide a special monthly payment for one of his Deputies filling in as the Animal Control Department Supervisor. Was this meant to be the permanent solution? Has this position been advertised and/or filled? Even limited County Government has certain responsibilities. Providing Animal Control is one of those that cannot be dismissed or abandoned to chance.
Perhaps others in attendance tonight will address these issues. Look hard at proceeds from financing, investment income, and rent, too. This proposed Budget, unchallenged, will result in significant Property Tax increases to maintain its spending priorities in the years to come. If in fact it is the desire of the Board of Commissioners to place such a Budget into effect it is deceiving to do so pretending a tax increase is unnecessary. Taxing goes hand in hand with spending and this budget spends a lot. I ask the Commissioners to own both the spending and the taxing or take steps to reduce the impact we the taxpayers will feel beginning July 1st and for years to come.
Andrew J. (Andy) Stevens
Stokes County, NC