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Commission approves tax increase
County hearing triggered much discussion
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Forsyth County News
Joseph Moore asked the Forsyth County commission to find cuts in the 2011 budget rather than raise taxes.

"Are we going to spend money that we don't have?" he asked. "All of us have to take a cut now and then."

Fellow resident Dan Jagoe countered that the county needed to raise the millage rate to maintain its high quality of life.

"We have to keep doing what we do best in Forsyth County and that's taking care of our citizens," he said.

And after listening to them and several other residents during the final public hearing on the proposed tax hike, the commission approved a net increase in the 2011 millage rate of .785 mills.

The decision, which will help close a projected deficit of about $13.3 million in next year's budget, came after the commissioners weighed several options.

In the end, however, the increase will equal about $62.80 more in taxes on a $200,000 home or about $94.20 on a $300,000 home, according to county figures.

The board settled 5-0 on setting the bond millage rate at .947 mills, down from 1.196, and the fire rate at 1.975 mills, up from 1.841.

The maintenance and operations millage rate, which goes toward the county's general fund, however, took more than an hour of deliberation to set.

"What we have to have is something we can live with that will allow us to provide the basic services to the citizens of the county, but no frills," Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said.

The board voted 3-2, with commissioners Jim Harrell and Brian Tam opposed, to increase the maintenance and operations millage rate by .9 mills.

The so-called "M&O" rate had not been raised since 2003.

The increase is expected to generate about $7.5 million in 2011, which could cover mandates, restore some paid holidays to employees and open Fowler Park.

The county advertised a net 1.48 mill increase, which was the maximum the commission could have set.

A mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. Assessed value is 40 percent of actual market value.

The rate will be for the 2011 budget, which the commission will adopt by year's end.

During the hearing that led up to the vote, commissioners heard from residents on both sides of the issue.

Chris Pike said his property taxes have fallen the past three years, though the millage rate held steady.

"It's only an increase if your taxes go up," he said. "The assessments have caused a lot of properties to go down, which has caused revenue to go down."

Forsyth Tea Party member Edie Gribler said she understood the county must cover mandates, but homeowners have those too.

"We, the people, are your boss. You work for us," Gribler said. "We say, 'I'm sorry, but the economy is slow and I can't give you a pay raise.'"

The board took its time on the figure for maintenance and operations.

County officials estimated a M&O millage rate increase of .6 mills would be necessary to cover minimum operating costs and mandates for 2011, including $2.2 million in health care costs and $1.4 million for the sheriff's office, among others.

Commissioner Patrick Bell said he felt that increase was "irresponsible" and wouldn't be enough to keep the county's high quality of services, which impact economic development.

After the meeting, Bell released a statement saying that he voted in favor of the increase for the "overall best interest of the citizens."

He also said he was addressing concerns about county spending.

"We must fund core services such as police protection, judicial services and increased costs to provide for public health, safety and welfare," he said. "At the same time, it is important we maintain a reasonably attractive quality of life to remain competitive in the economic development arena."

Tam unsuccessfully proposed raising the M&O rate at the full advertised amount of 1.595 or lesser amount of 1.15 mills.

"We walk a fine line trying to provide adequate services and still be responsible with people's money," he said. "We have trimmed $25 million in two years. I'm not here to waste anybody's money, but I don't want to be explaining to them when we can't serve them either."