Foster: Try to lower tax proposal

Apr. 08, 2013 @ 09:55 PM

County Commissioners Chairman Fred Foster said he’s urged administrators to “look internally” for ways to lower the fiscal 2013-14 property tax increase County Manager Mike Ruffin proposes.
Staffers and commissioners “must look critically at efficiencies,” potentially trading off cutbacks in less-critical areas to ensure that critical services and the county’s AAA bond rating are preserved, Foster said in the annual state of the county address.
The speech, delivered by video, was Foster’s first state of the county address since taking over as the board’s chairman in December.
His comments about taxes alluded to Ruffin’s early March warning that he would likely ask the commissioners to raise Durham County’s property tax rate by 5 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Ruffin has said an increase is necessary to cover rising debt-service payments.
But he’s proposed a single-step increase that would, he’s said, eliminate the need to raise taxes again for debt for five years. It would bank money “for several years out,” he told commissioners last month.
Foster didn’t mention the 5-cent benchmark or set any lower target of his own.
He did say, however, that budget uncertainties at the federal and state levels are likely to impose added pressure on the county budget.
The chairman singled out the continued use of state lottery funds to cover operational costs for the Durham Public Schools as one possibility.
Lottery money was originally supposed to fund construction and maintenance. But the state has allowed, even encouraged, local governments to use it for school operations during as the effects of the 2008-09 recession linger.
On the economic front, Durham’s unemployment rate at 7.5 percent is better than the national average and far better than the state average. But “we are not out of the woods yet” because “we are still in an uneven” recovery, Foster said.