Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Taxes proposed to stay the same, more law enforcement for Corolla

In the County Manager's budget report to the Commissioners, property taxes would stay the same. Outer Banks side of Currituck would get 8 new police officers. Here is the report from John Henderson of the Daily Advance:

CURRITUCK — Just as most Currituck families are tightening their finances during the current economic downturn, county government must do the same, County Manager Dan Scanlon told commissioners on Tuesday.

Scanlon expressed that sentiment as he unveiled a $47.9 million spending plan for next year that represents a less than 1 percent increase from the current year's budget.

The proposed budget includes no tax or fee increases. The tax rate would remain the same as the current year — 32 cents for every $100 of assessed property value.

"We are in a declining environment," Scanlon said. "We are not seeing an appreciable increase in our tax base. It isn't the time for government to look at expanding services and programs."

The only major personnel change in the proposed budget is the addition of eight new deputies to cover the Corolla area. The expenditure was actually approved by commissioners last year.

The new budget calls for spending $996,235 million more on the sheriff's department in the coming year, which includes the cost of the new deputies. Sheriff Susan Johnson has asked that the amount be increased about $150,000 to add a supervisory position.

"Now we only have one supervisor (in Corolla). I'm asking for a second one," Johnson said.

She said the new deputies would be in training for six months. "It will be next July before they are actually ready to go," she said.

Corolla residents can't wait. They have been pleading with the county for beefed up law enforcement. It was a campaign issue in the recent primary election, and it was a rallying cry by some who advocated incorporation a few years ago.

Scanlon told commissioners that the county would have to be frugal for the next several years. All signs point to a real estate market in Currituck that has significantly slowed, and along with it, the county's tax base, he said.

"We have seen a significant decrease in building permits," Scanlon said. "We have seen a significant decrease in (land) transfer taxes. Those have an immediate effect today, because that is revenue we are not collecting today. If we're not issuing building permits today, you're not going to expect significant increases in our tax base the next year or year after."

Increases in the assessed value of property in Currituck – which determines what homeowners pay in taxes – have significantly slowed in recent years.

From 1999 until 2005, assessed values of property in Currituck increased by 5 percent or more each year, which gave the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra revenue to spend even if commissioners adopted the identical tax rate as the year before.

"We've enjoyed a very robust economy, a very robust increase in a our tax base, Scanlon said.

But no more.

Assessed property value has increased by only 1.01 percent this fiscal year, and 0.61 percent last fiscal year.

Moreover, land transfer fees that are paid to the county by sellers at real estate closings have decreased by more than $2 million from two years ago.

And sales tax revenue has been flat.

"You are not seeing a growth in sales tax (revenues)," Scanlon said. "Not what we have traditionally seen."

The county plans to set aside $4.2 million of its $20 million emergency fund to spend, if need be, in the coming fiscal year, Scanlon said. But that shouldn't be construed to mean that the county's reserve fund will be depleted by a quarter, he said.

"We may spend none of it. We might spend half of it. We might spend all of it. I don't think we will spend all of it," Scanlon said.

The one bright spot in Currituck's economy is tourism. Occupancy fees paid to the county when visitors stay in rentals and hotels are at an all-time high, with $8.3 million collected through April.

"People are saying right now they feel pretty good about what is going on in the Outer Banks," Scanlon said. "I'm hearing reports that folks are coming (to visit)."

Commissioners will review the proposed budget at their June 2 meeting, and are slated to give it final approval on June 16.