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Tax increase among options to cover Upshur County budget shortfall

By Christina Lane
Aug. 15, 2012 at 10 p.m.

GILMER - After 10 years without a tax increase, Upshur County residents face radical proposals to fund the county budget.

One proposal calls for the county borrowing $1.43 million to balance the budget, while another plan calls for slashing salaries and services to make up a $525,000 shortfall.

County Judge Dean Fowler introduced a budget Wednesday that includes a proposal for a $1.43 million loan which would keep the tax rate stable at 47.8 cents per $100 valuation for the next three years.

Fowler's plan calls for almost $11,000 in cuts to each commissioner's salary, $190,000 worth of reductions in the jail, $120,000 in cuts to road and bridge and more.

Upshur County has successfully adopted budgets each of the past 10 years without a tax rate increase to property owners - and in some years the rate has been lowered.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner opposed the proposed loan and a tax rate increase.

He, instead, proposed deeper cuts, primarily to the county's retirement system for its employees.

"We borrowed money several years ago for a jail expansion," Hefner said. "That was a one-time expenditure that we made so we didn't have to send our inmates somewhere else and so we could take in out-of-county inmates and increase our revenue. When that note is paid off, we should lower the tax rate."

Fowler said commissioners have no choice but to raise taxes, take out a loan or reduce services to all of the county's residents by making more cuts.

He contended the reason the county hasn't had a tax rate increase in 10 years is due to handling its budget and money "very carefully."

"We built our reserves to nearly $5 million. Instead of raising taxes over the last three or four years, we spent money out of our savings account," Fowler said.

"But we are at a point now where we are either going to have to lose services or raise taxes, or we can keep the tax rate stable by renewing our loan for the next three years."

Proposed budget cuts

Upshur County commissioners adopted a budget one year ago that was $950,000 short of being balanced, requiring the county to pull almost that same amount of money from its reserves to balance it. The county's reserves were at about $2 million a year ago, and are now at about $1.13 million, Fowler said.

Among the cuts Fowler proposes is to reduce commissioners' salaries from $40,990 annually to $30,000 per year. Combined with taxes, that measure would save the county $46,323 per year, he said. Commissioners Mike Spencer and Hefner have each already reduced their pay. Meanwhile, incoming Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka has said he intends to reduce his salary by $16,000 annually.

Incumbent Pct. 3 Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree and incumbent Pct. 1 Commissioner James Crittenden have not cut their salaries and even though both will be leaving office, they each said Wednesday the commissioner job merits a full-time salary.

"You cannot learn the job as county commissioner part-time," Crabtree said.

Crittenden said reducing the salary will limit the people who can apply for the job to only those who are business owners or who are financially well off.

Spencer noted that commissioners used to be in charge of maintaining roads in their precincts, and now with the Unit Road System, that work falls to road engineer Eric Fisher.

Fowler was not proposing to cut his salary as judge, but Spencer noted the judge was never in charge of roads.

Other cuts proposed by Fowler include $190,000 from the jail fund, because the inmate population has been down. Fowler proposed cutting $50,000 from jail salaries. In road and bridge, Fowler proposed reducing the department by $120,000 with $100,000 of those cuts coming from salaries.

"When the budget ends on Sept. 30, road and bridge will have about $130,000 left in the salary line item," Fowler said.

"If the road engineer is not going to hire personnel and spend the money, then we don't need to continue to tax the people for it."

Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack's salary budget decreased about $31,000 in conjunction with Paula Gentry, who worked in the Gladewater tax office before being elected Pct. 1 commissioner.

Fowler said it will be up to Laminack to decide whether to move an employee to the Gladewater tax office or to close the tax office there.

Balancing the budget

In 2009, commissioners took out a three-year, $1.43 million loan to buy vehicles for the sheriff's office, a control panel in the jail, road and bridge equipment and computer hardware for the county clerk's document imaging system.

When it is paid off, Fowler proposed reissuing that loan to balance the county's budget this year and keep the tax rate at 47.8 cents for the next three years.

Or, he said, commissioners could increase the county's tax rate 3.3 cents and not reissue the loan.

Hefner proposed to cut the county's retirement match from a 2-1 contribution to a 1-1 contribution, saving about $250,000.

"A 2-1 match on retirement is excessive when nobody in the private sector gets that," Hefner said. "Going to a 1-1 match could prolong the survival of the retirement system."

County employees have not had a pay increase in five years.

Looking toward the future, Hefner said he will remain against a tax increase, and instead he said he wants "to get revenue through new structures and new businesses."

Commissioners are scheduled to continue budget discussions and hold a public hearing Aug. 31.



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