The town of Maxton on Tuesday began talking about next year’s budget, and the news — a harbinger for other local governments — isn’t good.
The town, with a tax rate of 80 cents for every $100 of property, the highest of any local government in the county, isn’t in the position to push higher taxes on residents, so layoffs appear to be the only alternative. Town Manager Vincent Long, after being told by the commissioners to dodge furloughs if at all possible, said a handful of positions would probably be cut, and mentioned the Public Works and Police departments as prime targets. That’s bad news for a town that has been plagued in recent years by street violence, much of it the work of young people.
It’s a scenario that will likely repeat itself time and again as local governments across the county try to come up with spending plans for the fiscal year that arrives on July 1. A sorry economy has choked revenue streams, but the cost of operating government hasn’t gotten any cheaper. Most municipalities in recent years have skipped on capital projects, been unable to give their employees raises, and trimmed whatever fat could be identified, so there aren’t any new rocks under which to take a look.
Property taxes are already high in most municipalities, as well as the county, and taxpayers aren’t in the mood to pay more. Expect some local governments to call for higher fees, which is easier to slip past residents than a tax hike, and fairer anyway because they target more than just property owners. Leaving open positions vacant will probably be the first choice, but some of the smaller towns won’t have that available as a remedy.
Of most interest will be the county Board of Commissioners, which last year promised taxpayers a 2-cent drop in the 79-cent tax rate in exchange for its approval of a quarter-cent hike to the sales tax that was promised to raise about $2 million. But we are told that there is a big gap between the projected revenues and what has been realized, putting the county in a tight squeeze.
We will know a lot more next week when interim County Manager Ricky Harris presents his plan to the county Board of Commissioners, which will include a 77-cent tax rate if the promise is kept. If so, Harris will have crafted a budget by working backward, taking a tax rate and making it fit, as opposed to identifying the needs and then finding the dollars.
It should be interesting.