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Mecklenburg County supes ponder new tax rate, flat revenue

SoVaNow.com / May 14, 2014
The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors is considering a 2 cent hike in the real estate tax rate that, in overall revenue terms, represents a wash — because of the offsetting impact of falling property values around the county.

With budget matters dominating the county’s agenda this week, supervisors are considering a new, “revenue neutral” real estate tax rate of 40 cents per $100 in value. The new rate would take effect with the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, slated to kick in July 1.

The current tax is 38 cents per $100 in value — one of the lowest real estate rates in the state of Virginia.

A 40-cent tax rate, if enacted by the supervisors, would have the effect of raising roughly the same amount of tax dollars from county property owners. That’s because Mecklenburg’s two-year tax reassessment showed an average 3 percent decline in the value of land, homes and businesses. If left unadjusted, the current 38 cent tax rate on top of a shrunken tax base would produce a shortfall of about $500,000 for county government in the new fiscal year.

Individual property owners would pay less, more, or the same amount of tax under the new rate — depending on their updated tax assessments, and how those assessments compare to the average 3 percent decline.

Members on the Board’s budget and finance committee — Gregg Gordon, Jim Jennings, Dan Tanner and David Brankley — floated the idea of a 40-cent rate but differed on the best way to appropriate the $600,000 in recouped revenue. Among the suggestions: deposit the money into either the general fund or the capital fund to use as reserves, or apply at least half the money to cover the county and school system’s increased health insurance costs.

Under this latter proposal, the money would be used to pay the employer’s share of insurance plan increases, although not the employee’s.

Without the tax rate change, the budget can still be balanced, but at the expense of county employees who would see their health insurance costs rise 13 percent — in part the result of the county cutting its contribution to employees’ health savings accounts cut by nearly half, to $2,900 per year.

At present, the HSA accounts for county employees cover the full amount of their $6,000 deductible for family policies. The proposed budget cut would leave employees on the hook for half of that deductible amount.

Another party that has a major stake in the budget outcome is the county school division. Superintendent of Schools James Thornton has submitted a request to supervisors seeking an additional $2 million in local funding over last year’s budget. Thornton told budget panel members that the additional money is necessary to meet the operating needs of teachers and school staff.

“Four years ago the schools had $5 million more than today,” Thornton told supervisors at a budget and finance meeting Thursday. Thornton said he recognized that all school systems in Southside Virginia are struggling, but cited Mecklenburg County’s ranking near the bottom of the region to argue that more education funding is needed.

Due in part to budget constraints, Thornton said, “We currently have uncertified teachers teaching math in middle school.”

Suggesting that local funding woes may contribute to declining SOL test scores, Thornton said that Wise County in western Virginia has produced some of the highest test scores in the state, and funding for schools there is two times the amount the county is required to provide based on the state formula known as the SOQ, or Standards of Quality.

Thornton told supervisors that Wise County schools get $14 million annually in local funding even though only $7 million is required by state law.

Gordon, chairman of the budget committee, indicated that he may support a $1.2 million increase in local school funding. That boost would come from the $600,000 in revenue produced by the 2-cent real estate tax hike, along with a similar amount in savings that have been identified throughout the budget.

According to County Administrator Wayne Carter, two areas of the budget will see appropriations increases this year — the jail system and the juvenile and domestic court.

Starting in the new fiscal year, all partner counties in the Meherrin River Regional Jail authority must pay a higher per diem cost for prisoners, and the cost of ankle monitors for juveniles also is rising sharply. Currently the Juvenile and Domestic Court has over 30 juveniles that wear ankle monitors, Carter said.

A last-minute request of $10,000 from Stuart Buchanan — to help pay for a fence around the Mecklenburg County Veterans Memorial in Clarksville — received unanimous support from the committee. Jim Jennings, who made the motion to approve the appropriation, said, “I don’t see how we can deny this request with all that the men and women in uniform have done and continue to do for us.”

The town of Boydton, which earlier this year asked the county for over $400,000 to cover lost revenues from the closing of Mecklenburg Correctional Center, is set to receive only $50,000.

Also, the county will continue to fund new school facilities and school roof replacement line items to the tune of $885,000 per year. Of that sum, $600,000 will go for school construction, with the balance applied for the roof replacement.

The Budget and Finance Committee will meet again at noon on Thursday, to finalize the budget before making a recommendation to the full board for approval. Before passage, the budget must be advertised and come up for a public hearing. The same holds true for tax rate changes.





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