County tax-rate increase shaping up as 1.87 cents

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 09:22 PM

County Commissioners honed in Thursday on a fiscal 2014-15 budget agreement that would require them to raise the countywide property tax rate by 1.87 cents per $100 of assessed value.

That would increase the county’s tax burden by 2.4 percent, and cost the owner of a $150,000 house $28.05 more per year.
The final number on the tax rate could still change, as the commissioners are scheduled to meet again on Monday to confer with the Durham school board and ask questions about vehicle purchases and a proposed expansion in ambulance staffing.
But Finance Director George Quick said any changes to the list of proposed vehicle purchases wouldn’t affect the tax rate, and County Manager Wendell Davis said he’s prepared to “go to the mat” to defend his request for additional paramedics.
The deliberations so far, however, have pared Davis’ initial request for a tax-rate increase of 2.73 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Officials accomplished that via a bit of tinkering with revenue projects, and some cuts to the manager’s proposed spending plan.
Commissioners by and large have accepted the largest driver of the tax increase, a series of job reclassifications and pay adjustments designed to bring the salaries of 1,230 count employees into line with those offered by other governments and the private sector.
That by itself accounts for about a penny of the rate increase. Rising debt payments associated with the construction of schools and other public buildings covers a good bit of the rest.
Thursday saw the commissioners instead address a number of details, for instance agreeing to County Attorney Lowell Siler’s request that they bring the salaries of seven of his assistant attorneys into line with their counterparts in city government.
Before agreeing to that, however, they made sure the assistants won’t be able to “double dip,” as Siler put it, from the broader set of employee pay adjustments. That and the realization by administrators that they’d double-counted benefit costs dropped the cost of the change from an initially estimated $213,000 to about $147,000.
Davis’ budget request also will increase fire-district taxes in rural Durham County, to pay both for new firefighters and the addition of a division chief in the county’s emergency management office.
The division chief will directly oversee the work of the county-owned Bethesda fire department and coordinate the work of rural departments elsewhere in the county.
Contra the wishes of rural chiefs, commissioners opted Thursday to specify that some of the money for the division head will come from fire-district taxes.
All county taxpayers will cover 30 percent of the hire’s cost, and Bethesda district taxes will cover another 30 percent. The remaining 40 percent will come from the other six rural fire districts, to include two, Eno and New Hope, that while based in Orange County cover parts of western Durham County.
Eno and New Hope were left out of the original funding plan, which assigned more of the cost to the five fire districts that are exclusively in Durham County.
The county’s senior budget analyst, Keith Lane, said the new split would have a “minuscule” impact, measured in the “hundredths of a cent” on each of the district rates.
Administrators floated the idea of covering the division chief’s salary and benefits entirely with countywide tax revenue and money from the Bethesda district. But elected officials waved it off, Commissioner Wendy Jacobs saying the 30-30-40 plan was fair.
Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley again defended the need for the hire, arguing that he needs someone to lighten the load on Emergency Management Director Jeff Batten.
“Somebody has got to monitor budgets, monitor how [the fire departments are] performing in their contracts and deal with the relationship as issues come up,” Worsley said.
“We’ll definitely be looking for somebody with a lot of fire expertise, but they also need to bring consensus and deal with a lot of issues,” he added. “It’ll be an interesting position. Somebody will have a lot of fun with it.”
The budget also appears likely to raise the solid-waste service fees for rural residents by $14 a household, to $139 per year. The increase will pay for an expansion of roll-out recycling.