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Gap in budget narrows
Tax hike still likely
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Forsyth County News
Public hearing

Residents are invited to give input on the proposed tax increase during three public hearings this month at the Forsyth County Administration Building. The first two are set for 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. July 15, with the third at 5 p.m. July 22.
The Forsyth County commission has started to whittle down expenses in the 2011 budget, but still anticipates a tax increase given the size of the $13.3 million shortfall.

Commissioners and county staff used a meeting Wednesday to work toward forming a clearer picture of the projected increase.

The county has announced a total increase of 1.48 mills, which is the maximum commissioners will be able to raise the rate.

In aiming to charge only what’s needed, the commission calculated mandated and perceived necessary expenses above the current level to determine the possible 2011 millage rate.

Those estimated $10.5 million expenses include: six paid holidays for employees; previously underfunded operating costs for the sheriff’s office; and contingency funds for emergencies.

They also include: health care increases; legal costs; and two amenities set to open next year, Fowler Park and the south Forsyth senior services center.

That equates to an increase of about 1.135 mills, which would bring the total millage rate to about 8 mills.

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

According to county figures in 2009, Forsyth had the lowest millage rates of 14 counties in the region, not including the bonds rate.

“I don’t think our goal is to be the lowest,” Commissioner Patrick Bell said. “I think our goal is to say we’re the most well-managed.”

He also noted that with a shrunken tax digest, the county would need to increase the millage rate to get the same amount of money as in 2010.

“If we leave the millage rate where it is, we’ll go backwards,” Bell said.

During healthy economic times, the commission had a budget totaling more than $100 million, but now struggles to meet the $80.3 million in expected revenue for 2011.

“We’ve cut $25 million off the initial 2008 budget,” Commissioner Jim Harrell said. “That’s a big whack.”

Bell pointed to mandates as a major increase in expenses this year. Those include an estimated increase of more than $2 million in health care costs due to the recent national Healthcare Reform Act.

“It will be very detrimental to the employees to have our health care percentage looked at as a Cadillac plan and taxed on,” said Pat Carson, director of personnel services.

Commissioners hope to restore some of the employee benefits set to end with 2010. Among them: unpaid holidays; 401K contribution reductions; and a freeze on selling back personal leave.

Continuing those provisions would save about $3 million, though some commissioners have expressed unwillingness to further strain staff.

“It’s time to share the pain,” said Chairman Charles Laughinghouse.

A county memo circulated since the last 2011 budget meeting asked senior staff members to find additional cuts within their departments’ proposed expenditures.

Those savings amounted to about $2.6 million, including capital costs and positions, said County Manager Doug Derrer.

“That doesn’t get us very close to $13 million, but it certainly will lead us in that direction,” he said.

Commissioners also suggested cutting hours at parks and libraries or pulling some road improvement money from 1-cent sales tax funding, as was done in the 2010 budget.

Harrell said the finance committee used zero-based budgeting this year, asking each department to go through its budgets line by line in order to reduce wasteful spending.

“When they were asked to justify, some of those requests disappeared,” he said.

Several residents have asked the commission to cut services instead of raising taxes, Laughinghouse said.

The commission considered delaying the openings of Fowler Park and the south Forsyth senior center, both of which are scheduled to open in 2011.

“It’s not like we’re trying to pare back and we’re bare bones. We’re opening new amenities in this budget,” Bell said. “We don’t have to have parks, libraries and greenways.”

He added that several residents have have told him they wouldn’t mind paying for those services.

“I think the average homeowner wouldn’t mind a little bit of an increase,” he said. “But we have to be mindful of what it does to businesses and families that own lots of land.”

The commission must adopt the millage rate by July 31, though the county’s budget doesn’t have to be approved until the end of December.

Three public hearings regarding the millage rate have been scheduled, starting with two on July 15.

Commissioners are expected to adopt the millage rate July 22 following the third public hearing.