LAURINBURG — Still $663,000 from balancing the county’s 2017 budget on Tuesday, the Scotland County Board of Commissioners unanimously supported a reduction in the property tax rate.
County Manager Kevin Patterson said that he will present to the commissioners a final budget recommendation, keeping the tax rate at $1.03, on June 6. He will also offer options reducing the tax rate to $1.02 and $1.01.
But Patterson was skeptical that the budget can withstand a sustainable reduction that will offer appreciable relief to taxpayers.
“It’s coming in and balancing out something that can have long-term stability as well as it’s sustainable and continues to meet the needs of the community,” he said. “I can put that tax rate anywhere you want to for a year. There are going to be consequences to that a year afterward.”
Commissioners Bob Davis, Whit Gibson, Guy McCook, Betty Gholston, and Carol McCall all maintained that the board began its budget discussions this year in the hope of reducing taxes. McCook pointed out that the solid waste availability fee implemented for the current year has saved the county’s general fund around $150,000 annually.
“I believe personally that, with the positive things that we’ve done in the last couple of years, there ought to be room for at least a one-cent reduction,” Gibson agreed.
Also during Tuesday’s budget workshop, the commissioners discussed financing $3 million in capital funds along with the $41 million needed to pay for the Scotland County Schools’ consolidation plan, which includes construction of a new elementary school and additions to Sycamore Lane and Laurel Hill.
“I would actually recommend that we bundle that with some of the other needs that we have, like the Morgan Center … and borrow $43 million and actually do some of the upgrades at our facilities,” said Patterson.
“Coming up with half a million dollars just for a parking lot that we’re still going to have to reseal every five years out of our regular operating budget is going to be a much more difficult process.”
Those projects include renovating the Morgan Center to serve as county office space and alleviate constraints at the courthouse, replace HVAC controls in county buildings, and renovate parking lots at the county complex on West Boulevard, the Covington Street administrative building, and Cronly Street annex.
“I think the concept has high merit, because otherwise we’re just penny-pinching our way along and stopgapping and not accomplishing a real overall goal,” said board chair Carol McCall. “We may have to just borrow the money to do it … at the rate we’re going, we’re not getting a whole lot done.”
In other business, Scotland County Schools Superintendent Ron Hargrave and finance officer Jay Toland detailed the school system’s budget for the $10.5 million in current expense funds the school system is slated to receive from the county in the coming year.
They also proposed spending $577,000 to purchase enough computing equipment to have a machine for each middle and high school student in the county. The county is in line to receive $601,000 in additional revenue in the next year from the state’s new system for sales tax distribution.
That money must be directed to community colleges, local school districts, or economic development
“We think we can cover two of those for you all: what we’re proposing is a one-to-one access initiative in the middle schools and the high school,” said Toland, adding that the measure will improve the quality of the county’s workforce by better-preparing students for employment. “We have some machines already at the buildings, so all we would need is the machines to make that one-to-one.”
Though the commissioners approved of the idea, they were reticent to promise full funding, in part because the new sales tax has yet to be paid out.
“You’re requesting basically the whole chunk of what that change is going to be, and I’m not sure that we’re ready to make that kind of commitment,” said Gibson, adding that the county also needs funds to better position itself to recruit industry.
“We see some things in the future that we need to budget for because we don’t want somebody coming in here and saying ‘we want to come here, but we need a million-dollar piece of land’ and us not having the money to buy it.”
Patterson will present budget recommendations during the commissioners’ regular meeting at 7 p.m. on June 6. A public hearing on the budget will follow.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.