Haywood passes budget that includes tax hike

After months of struggling to solve a $7 million budget shortfall, Haywood County commissioners voted 3 to 2 Monday night (June 15) to raise property taxes by 1.7 cents in lieu of more severe cuts to county workers.

The two commissioners who dissented gave different reasons for their vote: one opposed any tax increase while the other thought taxes might need to be raised even more. Commissioners Mark Swanger, Bill Upton and Kirk Kirkpatrick voted for the budget and associated tax increase. The county’s new tax rate will be 51.4 cents. The increase amounts to an extra $42 a year on a $250,000 home.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the lone commissioner opposed to the tax increase, said there was no easy answer to solve the budget shortfall. But ultimately, he believes county government should do what a business does when income dries up.

“In private business we have to cut expenses to the level of operating revenues,” said Ensley, who owns a surveying company and has seen his revenue cut in half by the recession. “As a business owner maybe I am more acclimated to making cuts.”

Ensley suggested furloughs and shortened work weeks for more county employees instead of raising taxes.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis voted against the budget because he felt the cuts were too deep and perhaps taxes should be raised more instead.

“Are we increasing the tax enough or are we going to have to hit it harder next year?” Curtis said. “If times continue to go bad, we’ve got no other cuts to make.”

The bare bones operation in the current budget will come back to haunt the county, Curtis said. Whether its deferring the purchase of computer software or replacing roofs on buildings, it will pile up in the laps of future commissioners to deal with, he said. Curtis partly blamed past boards of commissioners for today’s budget crunch. They kept the tax rate artificially low by dipping into the county’s savings, leaving the current board with little options, Curtis said.

Curtis also said county workers are suffering too much of a blow. The county is reducing its workforce by 32 employees. Thanks to early retirement and natural attrition, the county has already eliminated the lion’s share of those jobs, leaving only seven people that actually have to be let go. Another 11 employees will be cut to a 36 hour work week.

Curtis’ larger concern was the decrease to county benefits, namely a suspension of retirement contributions and reduction in health insurance benefits.

County employees will see their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums skyrocket. Curtis questioned how some county employees will afford it, citing some who earn only $20,000 a year.

“I don’t know how in the world if you are making $20,000 a year you are going to afford an increase in your deductible going up from $900 to $3,000 a year for a family,” Curtis said. “How do these people survive?”

Commissioner Mark Swanger, who voted for the budget, said it went against his principles but had to be done.

“I have always opposed tax increases, but again, circumstances demand in the absence of an acceptable alternative that I vote in a manner that is in the best interest of our county,” Swanger said.

Swanger said the county made many difficult cuts to get this far, from no increase in teacher supplements this year to a total elimination of contributions to non-profits, be it programs for the elderly or Folkmoot.

Commissioner Bill Upton said there were simply no more places to cut.

“We don’t need to go in our budget and find more positions to cut,” Upton said.

The budget process has seen a high level of public input, with many residents turning out to voice their opinions any time commissioners convened. Opponents even pitched in to comb the county budget for more places to cut in lieu of the tax hike.

The county enacted temporary measures over the past six months to make ends meet. Those included a hiring freeze, furloughs, a shortened workweek and suspended benefits. Some employees that have been operating on furloughs and shortened workweeks will return to normal hours with the enactment of the new budget.

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