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County budget keeps tax rate flat

County Manager Steve Wyatt presents budget as commissioners listen. County Manager Steve Wyatt presents budget as commissioners listen.

Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt on Wednesday recommended a $105 million budget for the new fiscal year that is lower than the current year's spending plan — by $385.

The $105 million budget, which keeps the property tax rate at 51.36 cents per $100 valuation, would increase school spending by $1.07 million, a better number than schools got last year, when they were cut by $1.6 million. The schools have asked for that amount, $1.6 million, in additional spending this year.

 

Schools account for the largest slice of the county budget, $28 million a year, and also have the largest portion of the total debt. The debt from capital projects is $111 million, with $68.9 million in school buildings, $29 million in county project and $13.2 million in Blue Ridge Community College projects.

Commissioners took no action on the budget recommendation. They will hold a workshop to hammer out details next week. But three did begin to stake out their positions. The 2012 budget-making debate is likely to center on whether to use part of the county's fund balance to pay for schools, law enforcement and other requests.

Wyatt's forecast shows the fund balance dropping from $9.4 million next year to $1.88 million in 2015. State law recommends that counties hold 8 percent of their budget in reserve but Henderson County commissioners several years ago created a policy raising that to 12 percent.

"This is a plan to go down with all flags flying," said Commissioner Bill O'Connor said. "We need to be willing to consider as we go through our budget planning in the next couple weeks that the only way a government is really being responsible is if it works within its resources."

"If we insist on spending $105 million we have to raise $105 million in that tax year, that's the only thing that makes sense. Our fund balance should be used for a very limited number of purposes," including maintenance of capital assets, emergencies like floods, fires and hurricanes, "where we really have to come to rescue of our citizens," or for "the opportunity to make a better life for our citizens generally by acquiring assets if they're appropriate and available."

Commissioners Charlie Messer and Larry Young, who cast the two no votes last year when the county slashed the school budget by 7½ percent, signaled a willingness to dip into the rainy day fund this year.

Messer defended the county commission's work over the past 12 years to build new schools and renovate others, build a health services building and restore the Historic Courthouse.

"If you look at the capital projects throughout the county, and what we've been able to do and contain that budget, we have been a very conservative board," he said. "The fund balance that we've got in place in Henderson County has been a valuable asset." When the need arises, "We need to spend it down some."

"I'm really pro-active in schools, our college, and all aspects of our law enforcement and we've got to look at some other aspects with the shortfalls of our nonprofits, because that impacts us daily," he said.

Larry Young also said the board had been conservative, and had kept taxes low.

"The only thing I would say about using this fund balance is that's what it's there for, and we are sworn through the oath of our office to protect the service, safety of the citizens of the county," he said.

Chairman Tommy Thompson made no comments on the budget, and Commissioner Michael Edney was absent. The commissioners will hold a work session at 1 p.m. May 22.