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Balanced county budget prepared
Proposal includes no tax hike
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County commissioners will propose a property tax rate for 2014 at their meeting tonight. The increase from this year’s rate is likely to be zero.

In preparation for the commission’s vote, the finance committee on Tuesday found a way to close the estimated $4.3 million general fund revenue shortfall for next year.

Since three of five commissioners serve on the finance committee, the consensus reached at the meeting could be the majority vote needed to propose a steady tax rate to the public before adoption.

The commission will set the tax rate prior to the state deadline of Aug. 1, even though the county’s budget for 2014 doesn’t have to be adopted until the end of 2013.

The finance committee began meeting in April to review the budget outlook with a goal of no tax increase, following a recent trend. The total county millage rate has remained steady since 2010.

The committee and county staff had whittled the initial gap between expenses and requests from nearly $8 million to about $4.3 million, and closed it Tuesday.

The difference could have been accomplished by raising taxes, reducing expenses or finding other funding sources.

After looking at the property tax levy options, Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills held up her fingers like a pair of scissors.

“I think we can still cut,” she said.

The gap was eliminated by reducing funding and moving nearly $3 million for vehicles or other items from the general fund to the capital reserve fund, which has money set aside for physical purchases.

The largest cut came from funding requested for hiring and training deputies prior to the opening of the new jail and courthouse at the end of 2014.

The committee cut the $2.4 million requested in half, citing a reduction in the time of hiring before the facilities open and lowering the jail staff to a figure closer to the national average for the employee-to-inmate ratio.

Funding would allow for hiring 43 jail employees (instead of the 62 requested) for four months at the end of 2014 (instead of six) and 25 courthouse positions.

The committee also discussed how existing vacant positions in the office could be redirected to other areas of the sheriff’s budget if needed.

Though the county sets a dollar amount for the agency, the sheriff determines how to spend the funding.

Another factor helping the finance committee close the shortfall was a higher-than-estimated increase in the county’s tax digest.

Finance director David Gruen said the 3 percent increase in the digest amounts to nearly $1.2 million for the 2014 budget, assuming the same property tax rate as in 2013.

The county had previously been estimating a 2 percent increase in the digest, Gruen said, but the final numbers showed the digest rose nearly 2.7 percent from new construction alone.

Including only the new construction values in the digest, the county could reduce the millage rate and still receive about $995,000 in additional property tax revenue, he said.

Known as the “rollback rate,” Gruen said the millage rate required to collect “the same tax dollars except for new construction” is required to be calculated by the state, and anything above that is considered an increase.

“We’re required [by the state] to advertise a notice of tax increase, even though the county levies the same rate,” he said, “because in reality, you’re getting more tax dollars.”

The rollback rate, which is also required for advertisement to the public, would lower the total county millage from the existing 7.656 mills to 7.624 mills.

The preliminary budget includes funding to restore county employees 401k to a 5 percent match, which had been reduced to 3 and 4 percent in prior years, and funding for 3 percent merit raises.

Those two actions, which remain in the finance committee’s recommendation, would cost about $1.5 million, Gruen said.

Commissioner Brian Tam said he hoped the full board would agree to keep those provisions if possible.

“As the county is experiencing some growth, this is important because we need to look at our retention,” Tam said. “I thought in 2005 and 2006, we were a training ground for a number of companies that were able to attract our employees away.”