County budget explained
Posted By Sparta Live | August 30, 2005 12:00 am
Kim Swindell Wood
Objections to a property tax increase have been heard loud and clear throughout White County, and officials want residents to understand why this step was necessary.
Jerry Denton, White County budget chairman, said “it was a must” that county commissioners increase the property tax for the upcoming fiscal year.
Last year’s property tax was $2.21 per $100 of assessed property value. Commissioners voted in August to approve a property tax rate of $2.28. The additional 7 cents will go into the county’s debt service. However, many taxpayers are confused about how much they will be paying. (See chart at end of story.)
“What we’ve been doing is basically using up where we had accumulated a fund balance,” said Farley, “and that fund balance was getting down [decreasing], and it was time to start tapering it off.”
Farley said 1 cent of property tax generates $27,300.
“Before the interest rate dropped, the county was funding debt service through the interest off the investments of the reserve funds,” said Denton.
According to Denton, interest rates dropped, which adversely affected the county. Farley said White County had been receiving approximately $900,000 in interest income before the decrease in increase rates. Then, in fiscal year 2003-2004, the interest income dropped to less than $200,000 because of the decrease in interest rates.
“Of course, interest rates have been down, and we haven’t been getting money in, but our interest payments have been down, also,” said Farley. “We probably paid out about $1.4 million or $1.5 million last year. We had about $200,000 there we didn’t have to pay in interest. We’re taking what money we saved last year and paying that on our capital outlay notes and trying to get out from under them.”
Denton said long-range planning is a key factor in maintaining an equitable budget. However, Denton and Farley both said no one involved in previous county budgetary processes could have predicted the extreme drop in interest rates, which led to a decrease in funds for the county budget.
“To be honest, we could have made it one more year [without a tax increase], but then you’d really been hit,” said Farley.
“We’d have been at the point of being insolvent within a couple of years,” said Denton.
Denton said his statement was a “scary thing to throw out there,” but he said the people of White County needed to be informed about the financial status of their governmental entities.
“We’re not buying anything new, and we’re not spending any money,” said Denton. “We’re trying to reduce the debt. We went two or three years without a tax rate increase and inflation went on.”
However, Farley has been looking ahead and believes there were some positive steps made when planning the 2005-2006 county budget.
“We’re moving in the direction to hopefully, in the next couple of years, offer benefits,” said Farley, “and I know a lot of people say, ‘Why should my tax dollars pay somebody else’s insurance?’ You can’t look at it as simply providing insurance for your employees. You’re upping the level of employee that you have. I truly believe – the more I look at it the more I’m convinced – if we get to the point where we can provide a benefit package, we’ll be able to hire a better employee, keep that better employee and in the end provide a better service to the community.”
Denton said White County has spent thousands of dollars training deputies and correction officers who have eventually gone to work for other counties, because they were able to obtain benefits at the new job. He said the money spent on training “could have gone a long way on benefits.”
“The ones we’re fighting to give insurance to, they don’t have normal jobs,” said Farley. “Our officers put on bullet proof vests to go to work. Nobody else in the county does. Our landfill operators – if people think they’re overpaid and shouldn’t have insurance, go down there and see the needles sticking up and see the stuff they have to trudge through. They [taxpayers] ought to be proud that they have somebody willing to do that.”
White County is the largest employer in the county. According to Farley, the school system, by itself, has 550 employees, in addition to governmental offices.
“With the money going into debt service, they’ve [taxpayers] got something there they can see,” said Farley, “They’re going to see that new library go up before too long. That’s part of that 7 cents. You’ve got the justice center. That’s part of that 7 cents. You’ve got the new schools. That’s all integrated into debt service.”
Denton also wanted to clear up any misunderstanding about the county refinancing its debt specifically to fund the new library. Many White Countians had thought the only reason for refinancing the debt was to fund the new library. However, Farley said the county’s debt would have had to be refinanced with or without the new library. He said debt payments would have been exorbitant and would have “destroyed” debt service. Therefore, refinancing was necessary.
Commissioners recently approved a jailer’s fee that is earmarked for debt service. Misdemeanor inmates will be charged $30 per 24-hour period of time they spend in jail.