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Grayson budget balances with new fees, tax hikes

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Grayson citizens could face increases in four areas come next year, as the county tries to close a $1.8 million gap in the budget.

Supervisors met Tuesday night to discuss options for addressing a deficit between the county's revenues and expenses.

The first item supervisors looked into was charging residents for trash pickup.

Supervisors have proposed a $3 per week charge, that would be assessed to all home owners in the county.

Chairman Mike Maynard stressed that this would not be optional, after hearing worries that people would opt out and begin throwing their trash over hillsides. The fee would be placed on the tax bill each resident receives.

Supervisors banked on collecting roughly $1 million on 7,500-plus residents.

Currently, the Town of Independence pays the county $3,000 a month to pick up resident's trash. That amount would be taken away, but all residents in the Town of Independence would pay the $3 weekly.

The Town of Fries uses Waste Management to pick up its trash, but town officials have expressed interest in having the county collect it instead.

Treasurer Junior Young noted that Fries residents pay $12.75 a month to the town, which then pays Waste Management. He said it would be easier to continue having the town collect the money and turn it over to the county.

Supervisor Brenda Sutherland questioned if residents were already paying for trash pickup via a $3 utility fee on their electric bills each month.

According to Young, the fee was placed on the bill in 1986, and was simply to generate more revenue for the county. While the board at the time opted to use the money for trash collection, Young noted that a lot of things have changed since then.

Maynard added that the proceeds from that fee went directly to the general fund and was used to support many services — including trash — offered in the county.

“Times have changed,” Maynard said. “We've got other expenses... Our budget has the basics in there, nothing more.”

Supervisor Joe Vaughan added that going nearly 25-30 years without an increase in trash fees has been excellent, but in that time, the costs of fuel, tires, vehicles and salaries have increased.

Maynard said the other option — which neither he nor the board want to consider — is to get out of the trash pickup business completely and turn it over to a company like Waste Management.

The idea would eliminate more than $1 million in expenses — the same amount of revenue if the county began charging for trash collection.

The board agreed, however, that they have no plans or desires to eliminate the Public Works Department.

Supervisors are planning to hold a public hearing on the proposed change at its yearly close-out meeting June 24 at 6:30 p.m.

Personal Property and Real Estate Taxes

With the $1 million in revenue expected from trash collection, there remained a $865,921 gap.

Previously, the board members discussed raising the personal property tax by 25 cents, which would bring an additional $165,000 in revenue to the county.

They also talked about increasing the county decal fee from $20 to $25 for cars and trucks, and from $10 to $15 on motorcycles. With those two increases, an additional $230,000 in cash flow would come the county's way.

That left supervisors with a gap of roughly $635,000 between revenue and expenses.

A 4-cent increase on the real estate tax levy would bring an additional $640,000 into the general fund — eliminating the $1.8 million deficit.

Maynard stressed that Grayson's 30-cent tax levy is the lowest of all counties in Virginia. The next lowest county is Highland County, with a tax levy of 39 cents.

“If we increase our levy to 34 cents and Highland County doesn't increase this year, we are still 5 cents below them,” Maynard explained.

Reserve Fund

The budget proposal includes $100,000 to be placed in an escrow account to begin a “rainy day” fund for the county — something it currently does not have.

Incoming County Administrator Jonathan Sweet questioned whether the board felt comfortable moving forward with a budget with so little wiggly room.

As a general rule of thumb, Sweet said auditors like to see county governments have between 10 and 15 percent of their operating budget in a reserve account to weather any storms, such as the situation the county is in now — and to make money available to plan for the future and any costs associated with those plans.

“We could have weathered this storm if we had a healthy fund balance,” Sweet said. He continued to say that having to build the fund during these tough times demonstrates the need the county has to create it.

He added that relying on cash advances and credit to pay bills during the slower cash flow months — like the county had to do this past fall — only costs taxpayers more money in interest and fees, wasting valuable tax dollars.

He understood that the entire amount couldn't be raised in one year, but felt that if the supervisors were considering a tax increase this year, they may want to include an additional increase to build the reserve fund at the same time.

In other words, he didn't want to see the board have to come back next year and discuss another tax increase to help build the reserve or provide money for planning.

Maynard said that he felt the board owed it to the people of Grayson to have some level of dependability on the tax rate. He added that tax increases have been few and far between in Grayson, and that residents have come to realize that an increase will carry the county for years to come.

Maynard also said that trying to raise reserve money in the current economy would place more of a burden on taxpayers — something he didn't feel could be done at this time.

In the end, supervisors agreed to leave the $100,000 in the budget, but nothing more.

Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2009-10 budget — which will include the increases in personal property and real estate taxes — June 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the board room.