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TOWN BUDGETS: Mills River plans largest land purchase

Town councils across Henderson County are on the homestretch of budget drafting season, closing in on new tax rates, dealing with increased costs for personnel and fire protection and funding land acquisitions or buying new equipment.

In Mills River, the Town Council is asking for revised budget numbers that could reduce the tax rate from the town manager’s recommendation by a penny or more.

Under the $9.5 million budget Town Manager Daniel Cobb presented to the council on May 11, the town’s property tax rate would drop a penny, from 19 cents per $100 of valuation to 18 cents per $100 of valuation. The revenue neutral tax rate for Mills River is 15.2 cents per $100 of property valuation.
The tax rate to fund Mills River Fire & Rescue would go from 11 cents to 10 cents, or 1.5 cents above revenue neutral. The amount of the tax rate that funds the town’s operations would remain at 8 cents under Cobb’s recommendation. He is working now at the council’s direction on a revision to potentially lower the rate to 7 or 6½ cents. Among the trims would be dropping his proposal to add two fulltime employees — an administrative assistant/deputy tax collector and a parks and recreation worker.

Overall, Cobb’s recommended budget was $3.7 million higher than the town’s current adjusted budget of $5.74 million.

“It should be noted that while year-over-year this budget represents over an 80 percent increase in total expenditures, the operating budget is a mere seven percent over the amended FY23 budget,” Cobb said in his budget message to the council. “The majority of the increase is due to one-time capital expenditures.” The budget, he added, reflects “three major milestones” —the largest land purchase the town has ever made, appropriation of the last of the town’s American Rescue Plan grant and the 2023 countywide revaluation, which “has provided for a significant increase in revenue for the town. These additional funds cover the cost of land acquisition and help offset the operational needs of the organization.”

The proposed budget includes $3.36 for capital projects — $2 million of which is covered by American Rescue Plan money — and $6.2 million for operations. Of the $2 million in ARP funds, $1.5 million would go toward the $2 million the town is spending to buy 68 acres adjacent to the town hall, currently a dairy owned by Bradley Johnston. The remaining $500,000 will come from the town’s reserves, Cobb said. The town council has talked about converting the milk shed for use by the Mills Farm Market.

The budget also appropriates $500,000 in ARP money to fund a new farmland preservation effort and $17,500 to support the farmers market. The town plans to partner with a land trust to help purchase conservation easements from farmers who want to protect their land from development.
Other capital projects in the proposed budget include creating a meadow and green space on 19 acres the town owns behind town hall bordering the Mills River. About 15 acres of the property will be used for a managed meadow that will involve removing invasive species and planting a combination of native species and grasses. The remaining four acres will be a greenspace.

Property values in Mills River increased by almost 34 percent after the 2023 reappraisal that saw values increase by an average of 48 percent countywide. The Mills River council will hold a public hearing on the budget on June 8.