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Mills River adopts budget

Donald Renshaw, who sells wood products at the Mills River Farm Market, speaks in favor moving the market to a shed on property the town is buying. Donald Renshaw, who sells wood products at the Mills River Farm Market, speaks in favor moving the market to a shed on property the town is buying.

Mills River’s Town Council on Thursday adopted a 2023-2024 budget that lowers its tax rate by two cents whle eliminating hiring plans and cutting other expenses.

Council voted 3-2 to adopt the $9,145,905 budget after Mayor pro tem Randy Austin made a motion to set the town’s take rate at 17 cents per $100 of property valuation. Austin’s motion also specified that the budget would not include money for a fulltime deputy tax collector.
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.
Goode said she supported lowering the tax rate from the current rate of 19 cents to 17 cents because the town council should do all it can to keep taxes low for residents.
But Gonce and Young said the tax rate needed to be higher to fund investments the town is making in buying property and funding important needs in the town.
“I’m with Jeff,” Gonce said of his opposition to the 17-cent tax rate. “I would be at 19 cents just so in two or three years I don’t have to jack it back up.”
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.
Earlier this month, the council voted 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.
The budget Cobb presented to council in May reduced the tax rate from 19 cents per $100 of property valuation to 18 cents. 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.
Cobb on Thursday presented council with the option to decrease the tax rate to 16.94 cents or to 17 cents.
The reduced tax rate means the town will not hire a fulltime deputy tax collector or fill positions in its parks department.
The budget adopted Thursday will also likely delay plans to move the Mills River Farm Market to a shed on property the town is buying.
A group of people supporting the market filled the council’s meeting room Thursday and several spoke in favor of the town making enough improvements on the shed to allow the market to operate in it by May 2024.
Donald Renshaw, who sells wood products at the market, said he would be willing to volunteer his time to working on the shed as soon as the current market season is finished.
“I’m more than willing to offer my time and it won’t cost you a dime,” he said.
Karen Rose, who sells eggs at the market, said town should work to move the market to the shed in the coming year.
“Be a forward-thinking town council and get the community involved,” she said. “Get people and families involved in cleanup and painting, get kids involved in community service. Don’t just let it sit. We need it.”
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.
The budget the town approved Thursday includes $3.15 million for capital investments-including the $2 million in ARP funds- and sets the operating budget at $5.99 million