Citizens allege wasteful spending

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Besides accusing Carroll supervisors of being late to their public hearing on the fiscal year 2008-09 budget proposal, citizens also slammed the board for wasteful spending.

The speakers at Monday’s hearing took the opportunity to share with the supervisors their opinions about the budget proposal that features a 59.5-cent real estate tax levy, following close on the heels of a land reassessment that pushed property values higher by an average of 40 percent.

The citizens that filled the board meeting room and spilled out into the hall continued to stew after the supervisors failed to come out of a closed session at 5:30 p.m., the scheduled time of the public hearing, and remained there until about 7 p.m.

When they got a chance to speak, the citizens shared their frustrations and their concerns with the supervisors for about 70 minutes.

After the reassessment came in, to bring in revenues from real estate taxes by more than 1 percent, supervisors had to hold a public hearing stating what that value would have been and how much above that they were proposing.

The tax rate would have to be adjusted down to 53 cents per $100 valuation of real estate to meet that 1 percent level, and the proposed tax rate rose 6.5 cents higher than that.

Ron Hall told the supervisors that he was one of those responsible for taking out a newspaper advertisement raising questions about the budgeting process and the county officials' decisions.

"High taxes are really the effect of an unrealistic budget," he said. "The budget is the effect of waste and irresponsible spending that has happened in the previous years... I guess I really can't fault you gentlemen for that..."

As all but one of the county supervisors just took office in January, Hall couldn't fault the board members for what had happened before then, but he also said those elected officials have the responsibility of correcting the problems.

Carroll's government is living beyond the citizens’ means, he added.

Hall noted that the median income is $30,000, and the county is filled with farmers, factory workers and those on fixed incomes.

Most people would like to have a higher standard of living, but see the need to live within their means, and they'd like Carroll officials to live within their means. That means not trying to have the things that Fairfax County has, he said.

Think about the factories in the area and then think about the schools that have been renovated. Those factories would not have a tower on them, like a recently renovated school does, Hall said, holding that up as an example of waste.

Does a fire truck with chrome rims and bumpers work any better than one with painted rims and bumpers, Hall asked. The plainer one would be a lot cheaper, he expected.

Businesses don't cut costs by going over a budget line by line, Hall said. "In corporate America you get told how much you will cut it and then the department heads cut it."

If they don't, pretty soon that business needs new department heads, he said.

"My advice is to tell your department heads to take $12 million out of the budget," Hall concluded. "Thank you for listening."

Bernie and Edna Thomas spoke to the supervisors together to share their concerns about the recent county reassessment.

Though the county said the value of their property came to $244,000, Edna Thomas said an appraiser they hired put the value at $165,000. She asked the supervisors to explain the $79,000 difference.

On a fixed income, the Thomases cannot afford to pay taxes on what the county has assessed their property at.

"My only concern now is where do we go from here?" Ray Hancock asked the supervisors. "What's going to happen at the next assessment time?"

Listen what the people are saying, he advised. The people may be hot under the collar now, but wait until next time — it could get even worse.

"Are you all hiring?" Olen Gallimore asked the supervisors when he got to the microphone, expressing his disappointment in how long they kept citizens waiting for the public hearing while conducting interviews for an open position.

(He also later asked why the county staff has gone from 30 to 59 people.)

Gallimore said he understands the need to make up the $1.3 million spent last year from the fund balance, but wondered if the supervisors needed to do that all at once, or if it could be spread out over a few years.

He also asked what was the need for a financial advisor when the county has elected officials like the treasurer and the commissioner of the revenue.

Land values and tax increases like those proposed are likely to push a lot of farmers and others out, he believes. "If you do that, a lot of us are going to think about selling out."

If the school system can be given level funding, then why can't the county departments get that, too? Gallimore asked.

That drew a response from Chairman Sam Dickson, who said the county budget is down a half-million dollars.

Gallimore went on to suggest a county income tax like the state and federal governments have, as well as a luxury tax for part-time residents with homes elsewhere.

"Thank y'all for letting me blast at you — it might not have been so bad if you were out on time," he finished.

Floyd Richardson suggested that Carroll do what Grayson County's supervisors do, and make up the difference how they could.

Richardson, who'd already asked the supervisors to cut the budget by 25 percent at an earlier meeting, thought they should send County Administrator Gary Larrowe back "and tell him to find the money."

Mike Metcalf also noted some signs of Carroll spending beyond its means, like the "monolith" of the governmental center building.

Are competitive bids sought for capital expenditures and are justifications given for spending proposals? Metcalf wondered.

The board of supervisors is supposed to be friends of the citizens, give them a fair shake and run the county with fiscal responsibility, he said.

Carroll County and the entire country are going through a tough state of the economy, said Barry Branscome. Remember how many people in Carroll don't have a job, he asked.

Dwayne Harmon shared a concern of how the tax increase would affect people like his mother, who in a time of rising oil prices recently spent two months of her income on 200 gallons of heating oil.

The proposed tax increase would be a burden on the people, he said. Instead of adding to the burden, Harmon suggested that the county as a whole needs to tighten its belt.

Buy surplus vehicles instead of new, for one thing, he said.

Nancy Hill said the thanks her 94-year-old bedridden mother is getting for her 32-year career as a Carroll County teacher is that her home went up 123 percent in value. That was after Hill told a county official that the home has been going downhill for years, because that money had to be spent on her mother's health care.

Barry Towe lost his programming job and he's cut everywhere to make ends meet. After that, he started selling timber and land off the family farm, even though it hurts to do so.

When you go through hard times, you have to make painful decisions, Towe said, and that's why he asked the Carroll supervisors make the tough call to cut their budget.

"I can give you three ways to balance the budget — cut spending, cut spending, cut spending," Elden Horton said.

Chairman Sam Dickson tried to address some concerns after the close of the public hearing.

The county officials are making hard choices, he indicated. "We wish it was as simple as it seems sometimes just to say cut, but sometimes it's not feasible."

The question becomes where to cut and how much. Dickson pointed out that it takes money to do things like putting fiber in the ground to attract high tech companies to create computer programming jobs, for example.

Carroll needs a larger tax base to bring down the rate to take the burden off the people, he noted. That will take investment.

"Do we not try to seek economic development?" he said. "Do we get rid of all those people or whatever we have and forget about that and say, ‘Well, it's never going to happen so we're going to quit trying?’”

In just five months, the supervisors have made "strong progress," even though the elected officials have had to deal with other issues, like reassessment and the budget.

"We have actually proposed a tax rate that will actually pay for what we're going to spend," Dickson said.

The last board didn't do that, but dipped into the fund balance, and that's "bad business," the chairman added.

The closed session wasn't just about interviewing candidates for the building official's job — the supervisors also talked about an economic development prospect and another business that's looking to expand, Dickson said. "It wasn't a matter of trying to not be here, it was a matter of what we did to try and save money."

He explained the supervisors try to hold closed meetings early so they can get advice from the county attorney and then let him leave to save on the fees. "That may be a bad idea, we may need to look at that."

Give us time, Dickson said. The supervisors had five months since taking office to get things done, and he expects the budget needs six to nine months of attention.

"The next year's budget we're starting to work on it in July," he said. "We're going to go over where every penny goes... it's going to be gone through close."

• Carroll supervisors will meet at 7 p.m. on June 23 to approve the budget.