July 23, 2024

Property Tax Rate Decrease Proposed In Alexander County Budget

The proposed 2024-2025 county budget was presented to the Alexander County Board of Commissioners at a work session, which was held Monday (April 29). A highlight of the proposed budget is a two-cent property tax rate decrease, which would lower the tax rate to 65 cents per $100 of valuation if approved.

County Manager Shane Fox emphasized this is only a proposed budget, with a formal presentation and public hearing scheduled for the May 20th board meeting. Commissioners will adopt the budget at their June 3 or June 17 meeting. Josh Lail, Chairman of the Alexander County Board of Commissioners, said the proposed budget reflects the county’s commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Fox said the objectives when developing the proposed 2024-2025 budget were to have a structurally balanced and priority-based budget, maintain or improve service levels, and enhance transparency and communications. The county manager and finance staff met with every department head in mid-February to discuss departmental budgets.

The proposed general fund budget totals $56,274,901, which is a 2.4 percent decrease of $1,355,117 compared to the current year’s budget. The general fund budget includes the two-cent property tax cut, a 5 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all county employees, continuation of the employee Christmas bonus, continued focus on public safety, and additional school funding.

Fox said the proposed budget was developed with a conservative approach based on economic metrics. He presented a pie chart that displayed general fund revenues, with property taxes at 47 percent, sales taxes at 21 percent, restricted grants at 20 percent, other revenues at 6 percent, and sales and services at 6 percent.

The property tax base increased by approximately 40 percent following revaluation in 2023, after years of stagnant growth. The tax base is projected at $4,080,203,444 (1.4 percent increase) for 2024-2025. The county is statutorily required to have a revaluation every eight years, with the next revaluation in 2031.

Fox said sales taxes are only up 3.85 percent this year, compared to 11 percent growth in the prior year. The proposed budget includes sales tax projections of $11,765,000, which is a $350,000 decrease.

Building permits have increased significantly, with 484 permits this year compared to 232 permits as of this time last year. Revenues from building permits are up 18 percent this year, with a projection of $500,000 for the current year. Fox said this increased construction activity is somewhat promising.

Fox then presented the proposed general fund expenditures for 2024-2025. Before adding the 5 percent COLA, 29 county departments are equal to or less than the 2023-2024 budget. He said there is a renewed focus on needs and planning for the future.

General fund expenditures are comprised of public safety at 35 percent, health and social services at 25 percent, general government at 18 percent, education at 15 percent, culture/recreation at 5 percent, debt at 1 percent, and economic development at 1 percent.

Fox’s presentation showed a decrease of $2,358,205 (9 percent) in operating expenditures. Health and human services expenditures are budgeted at $13,097,118, which is a 5.9 percent decrease.

The proposed budget also includes capital outlay of $100,000 in information technology upgrades, $200,000 for six vehicles, $600,000 for two ambulances, $79,000 for a sheriff’s office vehicle and equipment, $450,000 for a trash truck, and $60,000 for heating and air upgrades.

In terms of personnel, the proposed budget includes only two new positions, with one at the sheriff’s office and one at the landfill. With the 5 percent COLA and Christmas bonuses for employees, salaries and benefits total $29,859,926 in the proposed budget. Employee benefits are also improving at no additional cost to the county.

Fox said that Alexander County Schools requested $8,287,394 for 2024-2025, which is up from $7,383,428, for an increase of $903,966. The requested increase includes four areas of need, including the fire academy ($46,016 shortage), NC Pre-K ($63,596 shortage), an increase in employee benefits for locally-funded positions ($170,919 shortage), and enrollment decline and loss of state funding ($623,435 shortage). The proposed budget includes $109,612 for the fire academy and NC Pre-K program, for a total allocation of $7,493,040 for Alexander County Schools.

Fox said the county has been very consistent in providing funding to the school system. “Enrollment is the issue, not the county funding,” he said. “The county has given the same amount or more for the past 20 years.”

According to data from the NC Department of Public Instruction, there has been a 21.9 percent decline in student enrollment over the past 10 years, while the county’s allocation to the school system has increased 40.6 percent during that same period. In 2005-2006, enrollment peaked at 5,858 students, followed by 19 years of declining enrollment with a loss of 1,500 students (approximately 33 percent of total enrollment). Fox said that four of the seven local elementary schools are currently at or below 50 percent capacity.

In other appropriations, there is no change in fire department funding structure, except that the Vashti Volunteer Fire Department is requesting a half-cent fire district tax increase. Fox said that funding for the Economic Development Corporation has been reduced by $390,000 as the EDC is expected to become a county department in the 2024-2025 fiscal year. Funding for the Alexander Rescue Squad is proposed to be $175,000, an increase of $27,000. The proposed budget continues the current level of funding for the Christmas parade, Hiddenite Arts & Heritage Center, YMCA, Vaya Health, and others.

In the water and sewer fund, the City of Hickory is proposing a 5 percent rate increase for both services (average $3 increase per bill). Capital projects in the proposed budget include the Bethlehem Park improvements project (state funding and sales tax revenue), Bethlehem water tank project (state funding), Bowman Court sewer project, EMS Station #1 building (state funding), water line expansion project (federal funding), and courthouse project (subject to further discussion).

[News release courtesy of Gary Herman, Alexander County Public Information Officer]

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