Supervisors: No tax hike this year

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By John Barnhart

Bedford County's supervisors won't include a tax hike in this year's budget.

"I just don't see where this is the year for more spending increases," commented District 1 Supervisor Dale Wheeler.

Wheeler said that everybody's billfold has been hammered this year. County residents are already paying more for fuel and electricity, so hitting them with a tax increase would hurt, he noted.

He added that Bedford County's sales tax take hasn't fallen off, yet, but he worries that a property tax hike will hurt local business. According to Wheeler, the Bedford area has been doing well in comparison to other areas, but he is concerned that raising taxes will be harmful in the long run. He said that businesses are tax sensitive.

District 2 Supervisor Chuck Neudorfer said, last year, that he didn't want to have tax increases two years in a row.

"I'm sticking with that," he said.

Neudorfer said that tax increases, in the wake of the 2006 real estate reassessment, were a problem in his district last year. He said that as a result of reassessment, his tax bill went up 75 percent and that the majority in District 2 saw their tax bills nearly double. Increasing taxes this year would raise taxes for people who had already been hit hard.

"I know I won't be voting to raise taxes," said District 6 Supervisor Annie Pollard.

Pollard said that the economy is pinching everybody and local taxpayers can't afford an increase. Tax hikes are especially hard on elderly residents living on a fixed income who see their cost of living increases gobbled up by increased Medicare costs.

"We have to be very careful how we tax people and not tax them unnecessarily," she said.

"It's not going to happen," said District 7 Supervisor Gary Lowry. "I think tax payers have taken enough of a hit in the last two years."

Like Pollard, Lowry noted the impact of last year's higher tax bills on the elderly.

"I have a lot of elderly who live in my district," Lowry said.

Lowry said that no county department is untouchable and that the supervisors will need to take a close look at every budget request.

"It's the type of year I hate, but it has got to be done," Lowry concluded.

"I'm definitely not in favor of a tax increase," said Board Chairman Steve Arrington.

Arrington said that no year is a good year for a tax increase, but this is an especially bad year for one. He said that the supervisors need to differentiate between essential and non-essential services.

"There are just places where we are going to have to cut whether we want to or not," he said.

County Administrator Kathleen Guzi presented the supervisors with budget cuts, at a Monday evening work session, that will balance the budget without tax increases. She said that they had made it clear, during earlier work sessions, that they did not want to raise taxes. This contained $5.3 million in cuts from what various departments had requested.

The Sheriff's office provided $203,000 of these cuts. Vehicle funding was reduced by $160,000, leaving the funding at the same level it is for the current fiscal year. A personnel request by the department was cut by $43,000.

The Sheriff's Office wanted to create new positions for a vice officer and a captain over its special investigations unit. Guzi said that, after discussions with the Sheriff's Office, the department agreed it could live with creating only one position, or holding off hiring both until next January, cutting the necessary payroll costs in half. Originally it was hoped the positions could begin in January.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell the Sheriff how to run his department," said Lowry, adding that the county's drug problem is getting bigger.

Neudorfer favored having the two positions start in January, while Pollard suggested hiring one starting in July. Wheeler favored hiring a vice officer while District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek noted that they weren't telling the Sheriff who to hire, but rather how much money they had to give him.

When they voted, Wheeler joined Neudorfer, Cheek, District 4 Supervisor John Sharp and Lowry to support two positions starting in January. Pollard voted for one position, starting in July and Arrington voted to not add any position.

Bedford County Public Schools will get $1.25 million more in county funds than it did last year. This, however, falls short of $2.9 million in local funds that the school board requested when it approved the school budget.

Ryan Edwards, the school division's spokesman, said that the school board presented what they believe are the needs of the school system. The cut will put them in a tight spot.

"We have a list of to-do items that we can't afford to eliminate," Edwards said. "The board will be looking outside of those to-do items to see what we might shave off and still be able to operate at full speed next year."

Among the additions to this year's budget was a 5.8 percent salary increase for teachers. The county ranks near the bottom in teacher salaries compared to surrounding jurisdictions and the school board hopes, over the next three years, to bring its salaries in line with the average being paid by other school systems.

"Teacher salaries are a high priority for the board this year," Edwards went on to say. "I know that they're hoping that any possible cuts we have to make can be made around those teacher salary increases. When it comes down to it, if we don't make that effort to catch up with the rest of the area, we will continue to lose our best educators."

The supervisors will hold one more work session, on March 17, at 5 p.m.