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Amherst County crowd speaks out about proposed tax increase

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Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 12:10 am | Updated: 9:58 am, Wed Mar 13, 2013.

The largest crowd a few Amherst County officials said they had ever seen for a public hearing braved wintry weather last week to address the Board of Supervisors, which is at a crossroads decision in regards to possibly raising taxes.

The board is considering increases to the real estate and personal property tax rates to cover spending in the 2014 fiscal budget that begins in July. County Administrator Clarence Monday is proposing a 3-cent hike to real estate and 25-cent increase to personal property; Sheriff Jimmy Ayers has proposed an additional 5-cent hike to real estate tax to cover safety measures in schools, and that also is under review.

In a 3-2 vote last month, the board advertised a 25-cent increase for both real estate and personal property. Chairman Robert Curd and Supervisor David Pugh voted against it. The advertised budget version is not final. An adoption vote is expected for mid-April.

More than 100 people attended last week’s hearing at Amherst County High School and several dozen spoke, many voicing strong opposition to tax increases of any kind in an economic climate of high unemployment, soaring gas prices and rising costs of groceries.

“We just can’t afford any more,” said Anna Moore, a resident.

Several others, however, said they thought Ayers’ proposal to have sworn deputies in all county schools in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is worth looking at and potentially investing in.

“I wish there were more resources for our county,” said Pat Abbitt, a resident.

Monday’s recommended budget, which has a general fund of $76.5 million with school funding included, would maintain its current $15.1 million allocation for education and provide another $750,000 for operational needs. The proposal also gives a 3-percent raise for county employees.

Several residents backed more county funding support for the school system.

Matt Giles, a teacher, said as a resident he is willing to pay more in taxes so employees can get the raises they deserve.

“I never became a teacher to get rich,” he said. “But I would like to get paid and treated as the professional I am.”

At the end of the hearing, Curd urged residents to continue contacting county officials with concerns. He stressed that no final decisions have been made.

“It’s a slow, painful process,” Supervisor Claudia Tucker said at the meeting. “The one thing I want to tell everybody is, ‘compromise’ is not a dirty word.”

Supervisors continued to take public comments at a budget work session on Monday.

Resident Mark Labadie criticized spending by the sheriff’s office and school system and said teachers should be grateful to have a job.

“We do not have a budget problem, we have a spending problem,” he said.

Kenneth Bumgarner, a member of Amherst Town Council, said on Monday he was addressing the board as a resident and not as an elected official.

He added he is not an “anti-tax person” but said when increases are implemented, they cripple two groups especially: the low-income and the elderly.

He said he also opposes the school safety measure and its price tag of $1 million for deputies in all schools for the first year of implementation.

“There are no statistics to prove that’s going to make a difference,” he said. “It’s a huge expenditure, and we really don’t know what it is going to accomplish, if anything… I don’t envy the position you’re in.”

The board has scheduled its next budget work session for March 25 at 8:30 a.m. in the county administration building.

Earlier

AMHERST — A large crowd of Amherst County residents spoke out against proposed tax increases in a time of economic struggles among households and businesses.

No decisions have been made regarding just how much to raise taxes, but the supervisors held a public hearing Tuesday, with an advertised 25-cent increase in both real estate and personal property taxes to cover a budget with a proposed general fund totaling $75.6 million.

More than 100 people attended the public hearing Tuesday, which still was ongoing as of late Tuesday evening. County Administrator Clarence Monday and Board Chairman Robert Curd said it was the largest turnout for a hearing they had seen.

In one of the three scenarios, Monday proposes a 3-cent hike in the real estate rate, which currently is 52 cents per $100 of assessed value, and a 25-cent increase to the personal property tax rate, currently at $3.25 per $100 of assessed value.

Sheriff Jimmy Ayers put forth another proposal; this one would raise the real estate rate by 5 cents to generate money for school safety improvements, including adding 11 resource officers in schools at a cost of about $1 million. Security features such as door locks, video monitoring, security doors and communication upgrades in schools has an estimated $2 million price tag.

The school safety proposal comes in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December.

Prior to the hearing, Monday and Ayers explained the proposals to residents.

Ayers said he had received many calls after the Sandy Hook shooting and tried to have deputies in schools up to the Christmas break to ease parents' concerns. If something happens at a school in Amherst County and Ayers had not brought forth a safety plan, he said to the crowd: "What would that say about me?"

Schools in the county certainly are not isolated from a tragedy, he said, and the county needs to be prepared. Photos of the faces of the victims of Sandy Hook were displayed on a screen as he spoke.

He urged the citizens to let the Board of Supervisors know how they felt on the plan.

"That's a tough decision to make, folks," Ayers said. "Very tough."

Some residents urged the board to not go down that road.

"I believe a tax increase is ludicrous," resident Leslie Gamble said.

Cal Gamble said he wants to see the local government run as frugally as family budgets are.

"Do your job, balance the budget and don't spend money you don't have," he said. "It's that simple."

Resident Larry Wolf said he thought an advertised tax rate that is 48 percent higher had to be a mistake. It’s not good for drawing businesses "that would take their jobs and run so fast from this community" if enacted, he said.

"Let's win one for the taxpayer instead of the tax taker," he said.

Resident Dave Freeman said the increased tax burden is not in tune with the high unemployment, soaring gas prices and rising costs of goods, adding the “48 percent figure is scary.”

Several speakers said they would favor some form of tax increase to help safety measures under consideration in schools, education funding and needs in general. Others said the supervisors need to do more to step up financial support to schools.

The board advertised a 25-cent increase on both real estate and personal property rates but has noted the amount can be lowered and not increased beyond the advertised amount.

The current tax rates have been in place since the 2008-09 fiscal year. The budget plan seeks a 3 percent raise for county employees, which, if approved, would be the first in five years.

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