Haywood proposes 2.5-cent tax hike to pay for employee raises
Haywood County commissioners say a property tax increase is needed to dig the county out of a recession-era backlog.
“We kept pushing it and pushing it and pushing it forward hoping things would get better and what’s happened now is things are built up on us,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said. “If we don’t do it now, if you wait another year, it compounds itself.”
The county budget took a wallop during the recession, and has been stuck in neutral ever since. A property tax increase of 2.5 cents — bringing in an additional $2 million for the county — is needed to catch up, said County Manager Ira Dove.
The single biggest ticket item is raises for county employees, but the to-do list necessitating the tax hike is hardly limited to one or two large items.
The county has stalled and delayed on everything from buying sheriff’s squad cars and ambulances, putting new roofs on community centers and fixing old environmental contamination at the landfill.
“We kicked a lot of cans down,” Dove said. “This is how we got through the bad times. You do things in a down economy to get by because you have to. But one of the things I look at, is it sustainable?”
Dove answered his own question: no, it wasn’t sustainable.
Some county computers are going on 10 years old. The jail has been chronically under-staffed, getting by on over-time or part-time help. The Canton and Waynesville libraries need new heating and air conditioning systems.
The county is pledging more money for the public schools, and launching construction of a new emergency services base and new animal shelter.
The to-do list necessitating the tax hike is hardly limited to one or two large items, but the single biggest ticket item is raises for county employees, accounting for one cent of the 2.5 cent proposed increase.
Dove said county workers’ pay was falling behind the norm for counties of similar make-up.
“One of the things you told me to try to do was to try to fix it. So I fixed it relative to other counties,” Dove said. “As a community if you are going to say you want to do what is right by your employees, this is what’s right.”
Commissioners appeared to be of like mind as Dove walked through the proposed budget at a county meeting Monday.
“There is nowhere to kick the can now. We have to make decisions now to fix things that for seven years, we couldn’t fix,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.
The county budget hasn’t kept up with inflation over the past eight years. As the cost of doing business rose, the county had to cut the budget here in order to pay for higher costs there.
Typically, the county budget grows on its own year over year without having to raise taxes. More sales tax comes as more people buy more stuff each year, and new houses being built are added to the tax rolls.
While that was indeed the case this year — sales tax is projected to be $300,000 higher than last and construction is projected to add another $1 million. But the so-called “new money” in the budget is still not enough to tackle the backlog.
“I know no one wants to see a tax increase,” Dove said. “I am saying get yourself back on track.”
Debby King, a conservative activist and frequent critic of the commissioners, said she didn’t believe hiking taxes was the only solution.
“You keep coming to the property owners for more and more and more,” King said. “I respectfully request you go back to the drawing board and find money for giving county employees a raise without increasing property taxes.”
King was part of a small entourage in the audience at Monday’s meeting where the county budget was unveiled. The public was on notice that the budget would likely include a property tax increase. That led to a showing at Monday’s meeting by a group of conservative activists who regularly critique the commissioners for anything budget related — one of them wearing a T-shirt that read “Tyranny Response Unit.”
King’s comments were a small taste of what commissioners will likely hear during a formal public hearing on the budget Thursday (May 21).
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the critics were more interested in grandstanding and political posturing — with intentionally misleading statements — than truly engaging in a public dialogue on the budget.
“I would ask folks to come forth with the things specifically they disagree with, not just, ‘You got a lot of money and you aren’t spending it right,’” Kirkpatrick said. “Yeah, it is a lot of money. It takes a lot of money to run the county.”
Kirkpatrick said county employees deserve a raise after years of stagnating salaries during the slow recession rebound.
“They have been loyal to us for the past six years and it is time we return that,” Kirkpatrick said. “If there was some other way to get the money I am sure our critics would find it and I would be happy not to increase taxes.”
King pointed out that Macon and Jackson counties have given their employees raises over the past six years without hiking taxes, and both have lower tax rates than Haywood.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the comparison was off base though.
“They have these communities called Highlands and Cashiers,” Ensley said. “That’s why their rates are so low. Those counties don’t have the number of schools that we do.”
Adding it up
The proposed property tax increase in Haywood would bring the tax rate from 54.1 cent to 56.6 cents per $100 of property value. So the taxes on a $200,000 house would go from $1,082 a year to $1,132 a year.
Want to weigh in?
If you want to comment on the Haywood County budget proposal, here’s how:
• Public hearing at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 21, at the historic courthouse.
• Public comment period during the regular county meeting at 9 a.m. Monday, June 1, at the historic courthouse.