County tensions rise over budget, taxes

By Allen Worrell -

A revenue-neutral real estate tax increase based on reassessment has two members of the Carroll County Board of Supervisors seeking possible quarterly county budgets as opposed to annual budgets.

During the board’s June 12 meeting, Laurel Fork District Supervisor Joshua Hendrick made a motion to approve and appropriate a county general operating fund in the amount of $41,451,784. Included in Hendrick’s motion were advertised tax rates for Fiscal Year 2018. The only change from the previous year was the real estate tax rate, which increased 1.5 cents to 69.5 cents per $100 of valuation. Supervisor Phil McCraw seconded the motion. Before a vote, Supervisor Rex Hill asked if the real estate rate was the only change.

“Yes, that was the only tax rate to change. It went up a cent-and-a-half over last year as a revenue-neutral position on a reassessment,” Hendrick said. “It was revenue neutral because assessed value went up and down. Overall assessed value went down, which provides a revenue-neutral position for the county. Some (people’s taxes) went up, some went down, but more folks went down than went up.”

Hendrick noted the county had a lengthy discussion last year in evaluating real state versus personal property taxes. He said the county found there are a “whole lot of strings tied” to personal property taxes.

“In my opinion it is not in the best interest of the county or the citizens to adjust personal property more than we had to, which was done the year prior to realign us regionally and still be below the average,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick’s motion to approve the budget, along with the revenue-neutral real estate tax rate of 69.5 cents, was approved by a vote of 4-2. Hill and Robbie McCraw cast the two no votes. At that point, board chairman Bob Martin said he would like to see some changes in the budget process, and would be making suggestions in coming meetings. That didn’t sit well with Hendrick.

“What are we going to change? I am just curious, this is two years in a row we have had a committee member vote no when we went to adopt a budget,” Hendrick said. “I would just like to know what we need to change about the budget process.”

Martin said he had previously made a motion for the board to form a committee to meet with the Carroll County School Board and its finance people because he wasn’t satisfied with how things were going.

“A lot of counties involve the whole board in the process and we used to do that. It took forever and I wasn’t satisfied with that. But I’d like to do some more research with other counties and see how they would handle it if they are not doing a committee, how they would handle it,” Martin said. “There’s no perfect way of doing it. I am just saying I am never satisfied. I want a better way of doing things and I am open to that.”

Supervisor Phil McCraw said the board entrusts its budget committee to work with staff to come up with budgets. He said he didn’t understand why Hill voted against the proposed budget.

“In certain areas we have overspent our budget essentially. I would like to do quarterly appropriations and we might be able to get a handle on some of those areas where we overspend,” Hill said. “I don’t go along with the rate increase. I think there are still areas I think we could cut. I think it was brought up during the discussion about the campaign, some of the folks said we should pay our people first. Well, we haven’t paid the county anything, we haven’t set aside money. We have overspent every year for the past six or seven years. And maybe that is the budget process, but our revenue has not come in what we anticipated, and that is another reason.”

Phil McCraw said it was the first time he had heard anyone mention doing a county budget quarterly instead of yearly. Robbie McCraw said he voted no because of the real estate tax increase.

“I know it is revenue neutral but it still looks like an increase. To people out in the public it looks like an increase. I don’t have to reiterate what Rex said, I don’t like doing these appropriations throughout the year. I think we can do a better job of getting our numbers to where they need to be and we don’t have to worry about that, we know what our budget is going to be, we know what it is going to come in at or one of two percent over or a half a percent over,” he said. “I just think we can do a better job of serving the people of this county.”

Assistant County Administrator Nikki Cannon said no one could have anticipated Social Services and the county’s fees to the New River Valley Regional Jail escalating as much as they did over the past year. She said Carroll has almost surpassed Pulaski County in inmate fees at the jail, something she said is unheard of.

“And we discussed in the employee meeting Friday how unusual that was we were trending as high as we were,” Cannon said. “Those are things you cannot budget for the beginning of a budget year.”

Robbie McCraw said when he sees Carroll’s real estate tax rate at 69.5 cents he can’t help but notice Wythe County’s rate is much lower at 49 cents. That’s why businesses and industries are going to Wythe County, he said. Cannon responded that Wythe also has two interstates (I-77 and I-81) going through it.

“We also have an interstate that runs through here. That to me is not an excuse. I’m sorry but it is not,” Robbie McCraw countered. “We have a major interstate that runs through here that has 35,000 to 40,000 cars a day on it. We can’t use that as an excuse.”

County Administrator Steven Truitt said Carroll is working hard to improve its (economic development) scores. He said he believes Carroll’s fund balance will likely be higher this year than last, noting the county is trying to be as conservative as it can with the money it has on hand.

Supervisor Dr. Tom Littrell said everybody understands a budget is not a concrete item. It’s the best guess you can predict 12 months into the future and there will be adjustments no matter what happens. Hill said if the county went to quarterly budgets it could look at revenues if revenues weren’t coming in so that adjustments could be made to expenditures. Truitt said that could be looked at, but there are some things that can’t be adjusted in a quarter.

“A budget is not permission to spend the money, it is a plan to spend the money. A lot of people look at it as permission to spend the money,” Truitt said. “You need to manage to your plan to the degree you can…I don’t think you should set out a goal to spend more than you can afford. I think the goal should be let’s do what we can with what we have.”

IDA vacancy goes unfilled

After the tension-filled budget talks, the growing angst between supervisors at the June 12 meeting continued to rise when it came time to fill a vacancy on the Carroll County Industrial Development Authority (IDA).

Phil McCraw nominated long-time board of supervisor member David Hutchens to the IDA.

“He is a past chairman of BRCEDA (Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority), was very active in VaCO (Virginia Association of Counties), he has got a good knowledge of how business works, and I think it would behoove us to put him on IDA and that is my motion. Littrell seconded the motion, noting Hutchens has some really good ideas to promote the Wildwood Commerce Park in Richmond. Hutchens also has ties with folks that can give the park national exposure, Littrell said.

The vote started to go sideways when supervisor Joshua Hendrick asked if he could abstain for no reason at all. After Hendrick abstained, the motion failed 3-2 with Hill, Robbie McCraw and Bob Martin casting the three no votes. Phil McCraw and Littrell voted yes.

Hill then made a motion to nominate Todd Griffin to the IDA, which Robbie McCraw seconded. That motion failed by a 3-3 count with Hendrick, Phil McCraw and Littrell voting no.

With a stalemate inevitable, Hill made a motion to table IDA nominations until the next meeting. The motion passed unanimously.

Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN

By Allen Worrell