After the public hearing was finished on Monday, Lincoln County Commissioners voted to approve the 2019-2020 budget with the tax rate reverting back to the 59.9 cent tax rate originally proposed by County Manager Kelly Atkins in a budget workshop held the end of March. After the budget workshop, only one commissioner, Carrol Mitchem, wanted to keep the tax rate at 59.9, with the other five voting to increase it to 61.1.
“This will reduce the reserve fund, not the fund balance, by a little over a million dollars,” said Atkins in a telephone conference after the meeting. “We were already getting roughly a million dollars a year at the 59.9 rate but the commissioners wanted it to grow quicker, which is why they increased the tax rate. Instead of a million dollars going in, it would be two million dollars.”
At the meeting Monday night, two commissioners, Anita McCall and Bud Cesena, changed their minds.
“Although my personal opinion would be that we keep it at 61.1, I see my vote as a commissioner nothing more than being an ambassador, a representative of the public,” McCall said. “I have heard from the public, therefore I have switched my vote based on what the public has asked me to do, not what I prefer to do.”
Cesena said that his decision to switch his vote had nothing to do with the speakers at the public hearing. It was based on what he had heard from a great number of his neighbors and people all across the county who were “terribly concerned” and made interesting points about the situation.
Commissioners Rick Permenter and Milton Sigmon voted in the minority to keep the rate at 61.1.
“I’m really pissed,” Permenter said. “I’m sorry. I think you guys have backed off after all the hours we’ve spent on this. I’m astonished.”
Only four individuals spoke about the budget at the public hearing — former Commissioner Martin Oakes, Nic Haag, Alan Hoyle and Dennis Hanks. Oakes had nothing good to say about the proposed budget and, in particular the fund balance, saying it was excessive and was all “pretty ridiculous.”
“You’re now at the point where your tax rate is almost at the point of what the Mecklenburg tax rate is when they approve it tomorrow,” he said. “They’ll be at 61.69 and you’ll be at 61.1. It’s all pretty ridiculous. The point of all of it is to get a better bond rating. Not what I would want to do.”
Hoyle said that he wanted to remind the commissioners that spending and putting more debt on the backs of the citizens was not in the best interest of the public. He didn’t think spending $9 million on a jail and locking up more citizens was a good use of taxpayer money. He wondered if putting people with a drug problem in jail, which he said is a “money making revenue for the judges, lawyers and bail bondsmen,” was a good idea. He then brought attention to $4 million going to Animal Services instead of helping senior citizens and people with special needs. He also said he didn’t think that $108 million should be going to schools.
The 2019-2020 budget shows potential future capital projectsto include the courthouse with an estimated cost of $40 million to begin in 2020, a jail expansion with an estimated cost of $9 million also to begin in 2020, an EMS/EM/FM Back-up PSAP for an estimated cost of $10.5 million to begin in 2020 and an animal services center to begin in 2021 for an estimated cost of $4 million.
Hanks, who said he was a computer professional and had analyzed the county’s tax records after the new assessments, said that his analysis indicated that revenue was going to increase by 17.2 percent based upon tax increases. He thought this was unfair for county residents to be paying higher tax rates.
Haag sided with Oakes on the savings of $300,000 in bond money in favor of raising the tax rate. He chided the commissioners for not providing the counterbalance the county finance staff’s desire for additional funds and they finally found a “weak” commission that would back it.
“The way politics are supposed to work is that county finance is supposed to want more and more money, the county commissioners are supposed to be looking out for the people,” he said. “I believe the county commissioners have shirked their responsibility to protect the people’s money.”
He additionally suggested that the commissioners should tax the people at 100 percent if they could spend the money better.
Prior to the public hearing, the commissioners and the zoning board heard both quasi-judicial and legislative cases all of which will be approved or disapproved by the board at their next regular meeting.