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Wednesday, 03 June 2009 18:36

Haywood residents protest property tax hike during bad economy

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Scores of Haywood County taxpayers criticized the county’s proposed budget at a public hearing Monday (June 1) saying commissioners had not looked thoroughly at every possible option before proposing job cuts and a property tax increase.

Nearly 150 residents attended the meeting, many waving signs denouncing additional taxes.

The proposed budget recommends cutting 35 county positions and increasing the property tax rate by 1.7 cents from the current rate of 49.7 cents per $100 to make up for a $7 million budget shortfall. The 2009/2010 fiscal year starts July 1.

“Come up with cost saving ideas instead of the typical knee jerk reaction of raising taxes,” county resident Bill Davis suggested to commissioners.

Resident Ted Carr said it was ludicrous for commissioners to even consider a tax hike at a time when the economy is causing many to struggle.

“With the economy in the tank and the jobless rate as high as it is, I think it’s unconscionable that you’d suggest a 1.7 cent increase,” Carr said.

Others said county residents would suffer with a tax increase.

“For the people who are on fixed incomes, I see a heavy hit if you raise the taxes,” warned resident Yvonne Mazet. Though Mazet opposes a tax increase, she could give few specifics when interviewed about how she would make up for the $7 million budget shortfall the county faces.

“I’m just one person. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know where to cut. It’s not my job,” Mazet said, adding “I don’t want my taxes raised.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the audience of concerned citizens that the budget shortfall had left commissioners with few options.

“I want to find some more money, too, but I don’t know where it’s going to be right now because we’ve cut right down to the bottom,” Curtis said.

Some audience members said they understood the county is in a tough position, but that commissioners had gone too far with some of the proposed cuts.

“Our budget is at a place right now where we’re going to have to juggle, but when we cut our health out and we cut our schools off, we cut our throats,” said resident Danny Heatherly, referring to proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services and the public school system.

Audience members had plenty of suggestions, but in many cases, commissioners had already taken them into consideration.

Resident Linda Bennet suggested the county cut funding to programs that don’t benefit all citizens, like nonprofits.

“I’m not saying they’re not good causes, I’m not saying you’re not being sweet by paying for them, but if it’s not a program that benefits every single person, that’s the program you look at first,” Bennet said.

But the county already plans to cut all funding for nonprofits next year, and pre-emptively pulled funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. The cuts have impacted organizations like the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Resident Pat Carr agreed with many other audience members, saying that the county should pare down to the essentials like many residents have had to do.

“When I have to cut my budget, I look to see at what is a necessity and what is not a necessity,” Carr said. “I’d much rather see recreation programs cut than teachers cut.”

The county has already proposed significant cuts to recreation, including yanking all funding it provides to individual towns.

“We’re not giving any money to the town of Waynesville (for recreation) this budget,” Curtis said. “Canton is getting zero dollars this year.”

Audience members had other suggestions. For instance, Tammy Maney suggested increasing room taxes paid at area hotels and motels to alleviate some of the tax burden from county residents.

But Commissioner Mark Swanger pointed out that hiking the lodging tax requires approval by the state General Assembly.

“A couple of speakers mentioned the ... increase in occupancy tax, but that requires legislation in Raleigh,” Swanger said. “That’s a state statute that authorizes that.”

State law also dictates that room tax money must be invested back into tourism and can’t be spent on general county services.

Other audience suggestions included closing county administrative offices one day a week, raising the deductible county employees pay on their health insurance premium, reducing the salaries of some of the highest paid county administration, and consolidating some county and town services.

Resident Bruce Gardner said the commissioners need to examine cuts to even the smallest expenses, like turning the lights of the county justice center off at night.

“It’s the little things, it’s the dollars,” that add up, Gardner said.

Some residents blamed the county for frivolous spending in the past, saying it contributed to the county’s tough position today. Tammy Maney made that point just after Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked her to limit her speech to three minutes.

“If you’d been as strict with money in the county as the time limit to get up here and talk about it, we’d all be a lot better off,” Maney said.

Resident Sharon Miller pointed to the county’s grading of the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the east end of the county in hopes it would lure industry as an example of wasteful spending.

“(You spent) $1 million for the tearing down of a mountain where a year later there’s still no development there,” Miller said.

Resident Johnnie Curé, one of the most vocal of the tax opponents, pointed to the former county board’s purchase of 22 acres of land on Jonathan Creek over a year ago, intended for recreation purposes, as an example of wasteful spending. The former board of commissioners spent more than $1 million on the parcel.

“Why did we spend it when we didn’t have it?” Curé demanded. “You must have a great deal more stewardship when it comes to our money. Stop asking for more and more of it. There is no more to take.”

Curtis encouraged audience members to stay involved in the budget process.

“Stay engaged, because it is your budget, and it is your county,” Curtis said.

Commissioners will go back to the drawing board for another budget work session at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Haywood County Justice Center. A vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at the commissioners’ meeting at 5 p.m.

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