DOBSON — After an open forum and four public hearings, the Surry County Board of Commissioners was unanimous in approving a new budget.
Last year, two board members were in favor of the budget, two were against and one was on the fence at the last meeting in June. It took some finagling before the budget passed 3-2.
Last week the board met to nail down some fine points before the public meeting, then did some last-minute “horse trading,” in the words of Commissioner Larry Phillips, before agreeing on the new plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.
When Chairman Eddie Harris opened the floor for an open forum Monday evening, J.T. Henson, of Franklin Road, Mount Airy, said he wanted to see a fair, level fire tax rate for all citizens. Taxes paid in one district can be used to help another district, such as when volunteer firefighters helped Mount Airy earlier that day downtown. Setting a level fire tax would do away with artificial boundaries between fire departments, he argued.
Harris said he hadn’t opened the public hearing yet for possible fire district tax increases. Later the county would open a public hearing on fire taxes.
Not one person came forward to speak for or against raising fire rates during that hearing.
Several volunteer fire departments had asked for a district tax increase: Bannertown (1 cent), CC Camp (2 cents), Four Way (2 cents), Franklin (1.3 cents), Skull Camp (1.3 cents), South Surry (1.5 cents) and Westfield (2 cents).
Last year, Four Way and Franklin requested a 1.5-cent boost. CC Camp and Central Surry asked for 2 cents. Skull Camp and South Surry asked for dollar amounts that came to more than 2 cents. The board decided to give 0.7 cents instead.
This year, the board talked of giving those who had wanted 2 cents last year the rest of their request — or 1.3 cents more. That is how much Franklin and Skull Camp wanted, so the board chose to agree to that amount for them as well as for CC Camp, Four Way and South Surry.
Since Bannertown just asked for 1 cent, that was the amount voted upon.
The lone exception was Westfield, which asked for 2 cents because it is working on a new fire station and this money would cover the costs. The board agreed to the full 2 cents for the project’s sake.
The public hearing for supplemental school taxes did have participants as about a half-dozen Elkin residents and a couple from Mount Airy spoke up in favor of raising the rate.
Crystal Morphis, former president of the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, encouraged more school support, saying one of the main attractions for drawing new business development is school quality.
Matthew Schrum said he is one of those people who was attracted to Elkin because he liked the school system. As an attorney he had a choice of places to live. As much as he hates to support a tax increase, for this one, he wouldn’t mind even if it were doubled.
Paul Hammes, CEO of Hugh Chatham, said, “Our deep commitment to the community is very, very clear.” Having ongoing access to high-quality healthcare means the people must invest in the education of children, promoting both discovery and excellence.
Relocating doctors to a rural area is a well-documented challenge, Hammes said, and a good school system is an influence.
Elkin provides that, he said, as many members of the nursing staff went to Elkin High and then Surry Community College. Two of the doctors on staff attended Elkin High before going off to college.
“You may want to go here and you may want to go there,” said Elkin resident Ralph Beshears. But first, he said, you are here and have to work hard to get over there. In small towns, small actions can make a big difference.
Dr. Richard Brinegar, who is also on the Elkin school board, said that the request isn’t asking for folks in Lowgap or his relatives in Pilot Mountain to put up money. For more than 70 years, this is something the people of Elkin have supported for themselves.
Catrina Alexander, who works for Mount Airy City Schools, said that she was one of 700 kids in her graduating class in Florida, and one of 3,000 in the whole school. Her kids have had a chance to enjoy a special experience attending a school that is small in size but full of opportunity. She said she would like to see the county invest in kids who can in turn give back to the city and county later in life.
After the public hearing, Commissioner Harris said that the two school districts came before the board a year ago seeking a raise in the supplemental tax rate. The board was in full agreement over giving a penny last year, but that support isn’t there this time.
Commissioner Van Tucker said at the meeting last week that the board has to look at the aggregate of all the taxes being paid by a resident, not just the school tax.
A sheet prepared by Finance Director Sarah Bowen showed that someone in Mount Airy with a $100,000 house spent $1,172 on taxes in this fiscal year, and someone Elkin spent $1,264 for a similar home.
Yes, a 1-cent increase would only be $10 more for these folks, but it has to be weighed against other factors, Harris said.
Earlier in the day, the board got word that Mount Airy’s officials approved a 25-percent tax hike from 48 cents to 60 cents for every $100 of valued property.
A person living in the city has to pay taxes for the city, county, and schools, Harris said, and that can come to about a dollar and a half on every $100.
The board chairman noted that the county has agreed to spend $100,000 for lighting at a park in Elkin that the high school uses and will spend tens of millions renovating schools and adding a gym in Elkin.
Then came some unexpected last-minute negotiations to try to add more funding for schools overall.
In the current year, schools were funded at a rate of $1,140 per student. Surry County Schools said that because of decreased enrollment at some of its 19 campuses, the overall head count would go down. In order to stay even on funding, the county schools would need a rate of $1,160.
County Manager Chris Knopf had recommended $1,150, but then at the meeting, Harris and Phillips offered support for funding at the $1,160 level.
What happened, asked Commissioner Larry Johnson. Last week everyone seemed fine with Knopf’s recommendation.
Commissioner Van Tucker and Gary Tilley showed support for $1,160, so the change was made to the budget.
Tilley thanked the Elkin supporters who came out and spoke with passion. As a county school product himself from East Surry, he said that he hopes that somewhere down the line that Surry County Schools gives its own parents a chance to vote to lend their support to a supplemental tax.
The county is asked to do more and more with a revenue stream that is basically flat, said Phillips. Somewhere is a tipping point where either the county has to raise taxes or the state has to come back to funding more on operating schools. Going forward, educational funding will have a huge impact on counties.
It used to be that counties built and kept up schools, and the state paid to operate them, Phillips explained. Now the county funds about 96 percent of capital expenditures and also 17 percent of operational expenses, and yet the lieutenant governor of the state thinks counties need to do more.
After the discussion, the county board voted in favor of an annual budget that leaves the supplemental school tax rates alone, but raised the average daily membership funding from $1,140 to $1,160.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.