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County manager unveils $178M budget; Lapsley wants tax cut

Presenting his first spending blueprint as the county's top administrator, County Manager John Mitchell on Monday night recommended a $178.4 million budget fiscal year 2022-23 budget that keeps the property tax rate at 56.1 cents per $100 valuation.

The tax rate would go lower if County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley gets his way. Lapsley said the county's five-year record of growing its fund balance suggests that the reserve account will likely rise again, making it safe to cut the tax rate by 2 cents, to 54.1 cents.

Lapsley came prepared to back up his tax-cut proposal. Over the past five years the county has added $5.3 million, $3.5 million, $2.1 million, $7.4 million and $15.9 million into reserves, a total of $35.2 million.

"If we were a private corporation, I'd say, 'Halleluiah, this is a good business," he said. "But we're not a private corporation. I think we owe it to the taxpayers to adjust. I don't think it's our obligation to make boatloads of money."

Among the budget highlights are:

  • The total budget is just $1.5 million higher the current budget, an increase of less than 1 percent.
  • The budget fully funds the county's total debt service of $19.7 million.
  • The three biggest categories of spending are education, at $60.5 million, public safety ($42.6 million) and human services ($35 million). The total of $138.1 million accounts for 78 percent of the budget
  • Each penny of the property tax brings in $1.7 million.
  • The county's current tax rate (and Mitchell's proposed tax rate) is the eight-lowest among North Carolina counties with more than 100,000 people.

The debt service for all capital spending in the public schools and at Blue Ridge Community College is at $15.3 million while the debt payments for other projects total $2.3 million. However, the non-school-related debt service rises steeply, to $14 million, in 2025, when the county begins to repay the amount it will borrow for a major renovation and expansion of the Grove Street Courthouse and jail.

The reserve fund transfer of $18 million to balance the budget tends to be misleading, as Lapsley pointed out. For the past seven years the county has budgeted money from the reserve account only to not need it because spending was lower than budgeted and revenue higher.

Among the unknowns at this point is whether commissioners continue the partial funding of school resource officers at the four county schools in the Hendersonville city limits and the status of the Sheriff's Office contract to provide police coverage in the town of Mills River.

Beyond Lapsley's tax cut pitch, commissioners devoted no discussion to the budget. They will take it up during a workshop on May 18 and hold a public hearing on it on June 6.