ROCKINGHAM — City Council members begrudgingly voted Tuesday night to adopt the city’s annual budget for the next fiscal year, which includes the first property tax increase in two decades.
In the budget message, City Manager Monty Crump blames the increase on the Richmond County Board of Commissioners’ “abrupt” decision to change the method of sales tax distribution to the municipalities back in April — and partly on the losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both hit as the budget was being prepared, Crump said.
“Only time will tell which unexpected event will have a longer and more lasting effect on Richmond County’s towns and cities,” he said.
Rockingham is projected to lose nearly $731,000 in the coming year alone, according to Crump.
He continued saying the city has not had to raise its tax rate in 21 years “due exclusively to the fact that we have lived within our means and not spent more money than we took in from taxpayers.”
“This recommendation to raise Rockingham property taxes to offset the well-documented financial mismanagement and fiscal ineptitude by Richmond County Government does not come as an easy recommendation,” Crump said.
However, he added, it is the best course of action to ensure the city’s fiscal health and provide the same level of services to its residents.
In addition to raising the property tax from $0.48 to $0.58 per $100 valuation, the city will also be adding a $1.50 per month increase to its residential and commercial garbage fee — which Crump said still won’t completely close the gap.
“This proposed tax increase is a gun to the head, worst time and worst-case situation for the citizens of Rockingham,” Crump said. “In Rockingham’s case, unlike the County Commissioners’, we are raising taxes on ourselves and not passing the buck.”
While the city will retain 133 full-time employees, there will be no cost-of-living adjustment for this coming budget year; and the Capital Outlay budget was nearly sliced in half, to $309,457.
“The city is fortunate to continue to be in the sound financial position it is in given the state of the economy and financial pressures over the last several years, including the change in sales tax distribution,” Crump said, closing by acknowledging the work by outgoing Financial Director Hazel Tew and incoming director Jennifer Lambeth.
During the discussion period between the motion and vote to adopt the $17.5 million budget, councilmen Gene Willard and John Hutchinson both expressed their displeasure with the county.
“Municipalities are being forced to do things, like raise taxes just to survive because of one body not being up front with …the mismanagement of their funds,” Willard said, adding that the burden should have been absorbed by the county, not city residents.
Both Willard and Hutchinson agreed that it would have been less detrimental for the county to raise its taxes by $0.03 that for all the municipalities to increase by $0.10.
“I think that’s not in the best interest of the county or the municipalities,” Willard said.
Hutchinson said it was “disgusting to have to raise the taxes this much.”
The mayor pro tem also took issue with a comment made by County Manager Bryan Land in an email to commissioners in late April, and comments made on social media by county employees, regarding the municipalities not raising taxes over the years.
“Small incremental increases are a necessary tool to keep up with inflation cost alone,” Land said. “It certainly isn’t a fair practice to raise taxes on all of Richmond County including our local industries while municipalities go decades without an increase .Practices of this nature will stifle growth and economic development.”
“It really is offensive, because we have worked hard to manage money well,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve had tight budgets, we made it through those years … we’ve prioritized spending, we’ve taken care of taxpayer money.
“And to hear somebody say, ‘You should have been raising taxes all along,” I think is a horrible statement to make,” Hutchinson continued. “It’s not our duty to raise taxes just because it’s time. We’re supposed to live within the means we have and provide the services we do and keep taxes as low as we possibly can.”