ROCKINGHAM — County employees will get a raise and residents will see no increase in property taxes — however, some service fees will go up.
That’s per the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget passed by the Richmond County Board of Commissioners Tuesday evening.
At the beginning of his budget presentation, County Manager Bryan Land showed commissioners how much the county’s financial situation has improved in the past several years.
The fund amount of unassigned fund balance had dropped to just above 5% in 2018, but has nearly tripled to 18.27%. Likewise, the available fund balance has increased from a low of 11.82% to 24.64%. In roughly the same time period, the county’s debt burden has been slashed nearly in half, from $43,772,834 to $24,781,990.
The budget, Land said, was challenging with unfunded mandates and increased expenses like fuel costs.
This year’s General Fund budget is balanced at $56,930,369, which Land called “fiscally conservative.”
The county manager added that it maintains current operations and meets debt requirements, however some departmental budgets were cut and some organizations would receive less than what was requested.
Land and several commissioners commended the county’s department heads for their work in keeping costs down.
He also said that, since 2018, the county has worked to remove the dependence on transfers from the Solid Waste Fund to the General Fund.
According to land, this is the third time since fiscal year 2011-2012 there has been no such transfer to balance the budget, as well as the fourth consecutive year without dipping into the fund balance.
‘OUR MOST VALUABLE ASSET’
Land said that while property tax revenues for this fiscal year are expected to exceed the budgeted amount, “the need for these additional funds is great.”
“Our employees are long overdue for a salary adjustment,” Land said. “They have received a meager 4 percent of the past five years.”
Personnel costs account for roughly 42% of the budget, according to Land.
This year, employees will see a 4% increase in their paychecks. Full-time employees will also retain two bonus off-days as well as their birthdays, and can opt to receive $100 per day instead of taking time off.
“As I state often, we must do everything we can to protect our most valuable asset, our employees,” Land said.
The budget includes funding for the merit pay program and extends eligibility to those with at least three years of employment.
When it came to renewing insurance policies, Land said that the quote from First Carolina Care came with a 17% increase. The county then requested proposals from other insurance companies, with only two responding.
One of those was Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, with which the county was able to negotiate a plan “comparable to our current offering,” according to Land.
Another large chunk of the county budget — about 1/4 — goes toward education, Land said, for a total of around $13.6 million.
This year, the county was able to provide an extra $283,873 to the Richmond County Board of Education and $20,392 for Richmond Community College compared to the previous budget.
Land said the budget provides “adequate” funds to continue operations of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and the jail.
“The willingness of Sheriff (Mark) Gulledge and Chief (Deputy Jay) Childers to work with me on saving funds for the upcoming year has been crucial in my ability to balance the budget,” Land said. “The implementation of the revamped pay plan implemented last July has helped considerably with placing an emphasis on recruitment and retention.”
Land said the vacancy rate has dropped by nearly 10% since last year.
The budget also includes a $0.09 tax rate for the Northside fire tax district, $0.10 rate for the Cordova and Mountain Creek districts, as well as a $0.10 rate for the East Rockingham fire service district.
The Cordova, Northside and Mountain Creek Departments will continue to receive $7,500 to assist in the purchase of new trucks and the county’s rescue squads — Hamlet, Richmond County, Cordova, Ellerbe and Hoffman — will be given a 50% increase in their annual allotments.
SERVICE FEES GO UP
Both solid waste and water fees will be increasing this year, according to Land.
The Solid Waste Budget, balanced at $4,350,675, will include a residential fee increase of 2.3% ($4) and a 2% increase in commercial fees.
Land said the county has absorbed increases from Uwharrie Environmental of up 3% and will be hit with a 20% tipping fee hike starting July 1.
Fuel prices nearing $6 per gallon are also a concern, Land continued, adding that department managers continue to look for ways to cut operational costs.
County water customers will see an extra $0.50 tacked on to their monthly water bills this year from a 2% increase. Commercial, industrial and bulk rates are going up 3.8%.
“Occasional water rate increases are necessary to keep up with the continued increases in operational cost including the cost of water chemicals, power and fuel,” Land said.
The county gets most of its funding from property and sales taxes, Land said.
The property tax rate will remain at $0.83 per $100 of valuation for the upcoming fiscal year.
This year, the county is on track of reaching its goal of a 97.5% collection rate for property taxes.
Land said the tax office continues to “shatter records” in collection each year.
“Just a decade ago, guys, we were at a 93% collection rate,” Land said.
The tax department has also started the property revaluation process, with new values being assessed in 2024 for the 2024-2025 fiscal year.
“At this time, we feel confident that we will be in a position to reduce our current tax rate as property values are expected to increase considerably,” Land said.
In relation to sales tax revenues, the budget includes $728,910 to be divvied up among the county’s six municipalities.
The aid is part of an agreement after a previous board decided in 2020 to change the way sales taxes were distributed.
Commissioner Andy Grooms said his main contention with the budget was that the county has no say in how the municipalities spend that money.
“It’s my opinion that, in the future, whether it’s through our municipal meetings or a change in our budget, that we need to have more say in how that money’s spent,” Grooms said. “When we’ve got department heads having to pinch pennies to come up with a budget for us, and then we’re throwing $700,000 at 20-something other people and hoping they do what’s best. It really don’t sit well with me, especially when the biggest part of that money is going to the two municipalities that have demonstrated they don’t need it.
“If we’re trying to help have strong municipalities in this county, more of the money needs to go to the smaller ones.”