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Mills River delays budget vote

Mills River Mayor Pro Tem Randy Austin (left), Mayor Shanon Gonce, (middle) and councilmember James Cantrell (right) discuss the town’s proposed budget.

MILLS RIVER ­ Mills River’s Town Council delayed voting on its 2023-2024 budget Thursday, opting instead to direct its town manager to come up with a plan that will cut the town’s tax rate.

The council voted 3-2 in favor of a motion by Mayor pro tem Randy Austin to instruct Town Manager Daniel Cobb to lower the town’s tax rate by beginning with the revenue neutral rate of 15.2 cents per $100 of property valuation and then increasing the rate only enough to include money to make payments on land Mills River recently bought and to pay for salary increases for town employees.
Councilmembers Sandra Goode and James Cantrell joined Austin in voting in favor of the motion. Mayor Shanon Gonce and councilman Jeff Young voted against the motion.
The council is expected to consider the budget again during its regular monthly meeting on June 22.
Austin said he felt more cuts needed to be made to the $9.5 million budget Cobb presented in May because the proposed plan only decreased the town’s current tax rate from 19 cents per $100 of property valuation to 18 cents per $100 of property valuation. The recommended one cent decrease was the result of the part of the rate going to Mills River Fire and Rescue going from 11 cents to 10 cents. The portion of the tax rate going to fund town operations remained at the current rate of 8 cents.
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.
Under the proposed budget, many property owners in Mills River would see a more than 30 percent increase in their tax bills, Austin said before making the motion.
“I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said.
Gonce and Young both pointed out that most of the tax rate in Mills River is fixed because the town is required to adopt the fire tax rate of 10 cents set by Henderson County commissioners. The town is also required to honor its contract with the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, an appropriation that accounts for 4.7 cents of the tax rate.
“Those two are fixed,” Gonce said. “Our discretionary tax rate is under 3 cents.”
Recalculating the 2023-2024 budget with a lower tax rate means the town will likely forgo hiring a fulltime deputy tax collector or fill positions in the town’s parks department, Cobb said in a presentation to council members.
Cobb presented the council with revised budget figures on Thursday before council voted in favor of Austin’s motion.
The presentation showed that while the operating budget was reduced by $4,533 between the May presentation and Thursday’s meeting and the capital budget decreased by $205,000, the town’s tax rate remained at the 18 cents first proposed in May.
The decision to take another look at the budget came after a public hearing where two Mills River residents spoke on the issue.
Resident Bryan Ross told council members they should not collect money and then find a way to spend it.
“Don’t take the easy way out today,” he said.
Kristen Rintoul told the council that she once served on a town council in another town. During her time on the council, the town endured tax increases for several years because the town waited nine years before increasing the tax rate.
Overall, the budget Cobb recommended in May 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 7 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 budget proposed in May included $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.