The Scotland County Board of Commissioners moved a step closer to a tax hike on Thursday when it agreed to include a three-cent increase in its tentative budget.
The board also agreed to hold a joint meeting with the county school board to discuss the school system’s budget proposal, which was given to the county on Tuesday.
With only Commissioner John Cooley dissenting, the board voted to add the three-cent tax increase. The proposal would mean a tax rate next year of $1.02 per $100 in valuation.
One question that resulted was how the excess money raised by the tax should be spent. Under the tentative plan, the county’s 2012-13 budget goes from a deficit of more than $500,000 to a $121,366 surplus.
“We should give some of that back to (county employees),” said Commissioner John Alford, who is in favor of using the excess to return some of the 2.5-percent in salary taken from county employees during the recent budget crunch.
Wary of spending money the county has not yet made, Cooley said that “that kind of thinking is what got us to this position in the first place.”
“Right now people would just rather have their jobs than a raise, anyway,” Cooley added.
“I believe the economy is going to get better — it has too, so we shouldn’t increase the tax and not give anything back that we’ve taken,” Alford continued.
The county comissioners also agreed to schedule a meeting with the school board.
“I went through (the school system’s proposed budget) pretty thoroughly … and there is some stuff in there that we need clarity on,” said board Chairman Bob Davis.
“There are five directors listed in this budget at a cost of $512,000 — I don’t know what they would do,” said Davis, adding that “for that reason we need to sit down with (the school board).”
Cooley said that a central question to the county should be “how much bang are we getting for our dollar?”
Alford predicted that “the talk about the school floor is gradually coming to a head. There will be a referendum.”
“We’ve got to have some relief from the school floor or we will find ourselves here next year doing the same thing,” added Alford before presenting the motion for the joint meeting.
Careful to tamp down what may be perceived as a rivalry, Davis cautioned that “this is not a case of ‘us vs. them’ — it’s just Scotland County we are looking to take care of, and right now we need some clarity.”
“It is a partnership, and we need to try to meet because we can’t change the system,” said Commissioner Carol McCall in agreement.
“They need to know that we’ve cut some things as well,” added board member Joyce McDow.
The board members also had a lengthy debate about the design of its current property tax card, which currently lists only the total tax and a “school tax” which is the sum of what the county gives to the school system as a result of the funding formula.
“Calling it a school tax is mislabeling it,” said McCall.
“Just like we don’t call it a ‘sheriff’s department tax’,” said Alford, concurring with McCall.
It will cost the county more than $8,000 to send out a larger tax card that includes more detailed information than the current card.
“We need to ask ourselves if it is worth $8,000 for this clarity,” said Davis.
“We are asking people to pay thousands in taxes, and they deserve to see (the more detailed) information — the phone company couldn’t even get away with what we send out now,” said Cooley.
The board agreed to create mock-ups of the new tax card for review during its next session.
The board spent some of its meeting on Thursday reviewing areas where it can further cut expenses, including the benefit it provides in allowing some employees to take their vehicles home.
“I don’t want to see us strip our department heads of every little perk they have,” said Alford in defense of allowing the department heads to determine whether they genuinely need to take their work vehicles home.
“I know how dedicated these people have already been, and how many millions they have already saved us, so I wouldn’t want to (not allow them to continue to take their vehicles home) at this time,” added Alford.
“We need to look at what cost savings we can come up with, because the other option is to increase taxes,” said Cooley in response.
The board planned to get more detailed information from county workers currently taking their vehicles home for consideration at the next meeting.