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Grayson citizens: It's no time for tax hikes

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Ten citizens attended a public hearing for Grayson County's 2009-10 budget on Tuesday, which includes increases in the tax levy, personal property tax rates and vehicle decal costs and a new fee for trash pickup.

Supervisors first asked County Administrator Jonathan Sweet to give an overview of the $16.3 million budget.

Sweet compared the proposed budget to the current one, and found that in the 52 operational lines on the expense side, 13 decreased.

Another 17 operational lines stayed the same, he added, meaning roughly 58 percent of the 2009-10 budget proposal categories were either less than or equal to last year's.

Sweet continued to say that of those 22 that increased, many were just a “marginal increase,” such as $500.

The major increase this year adding $300,000 for care of prisoners, as well as additional debt services for the school facility updates.

Along with the $1.2 million towards school improvements, the county put $347,000 in community investments, giving the board more than $1.5 million invested in the future of Grayson County.

With the additional $4 million given to the school system; $3.42 million for law enforcement, animal control, judicial services and care of prisoners; and $3 million in social health and comprehensive services; Sweet noted that $11.5 million of the $16.3 million budget — roughly 71 percent — is for core and required services alone.

Sweet felt that the board more accurately budgeted the revenues for the upcoming fiscal year, noting that the 2008-09 budget will have some short-falls.

He applauded the board for the hard work and investments towards the future of the county — specifically the education system that his children will one day take advantage of.

Citizens' Opinions

After Sweet's review, Chairman Mike Maynard opened the public hearing.

Daniel Cannoy of Elk Creek was first to speak. “It seems a mistake to me for the county to increase its budget $1.2 million at a time when the economy is down like it is. A lot of people are out of work — like me — and it just seems like a mistake.”

Cannoy felt that supervisors could trim the budget some more, noting that care of prisoners was a good place to start.

He added that cuts could be made to tourism, as well. “I mean, what does that bring to the county? We need industry and more of it. Industry needs to be promoted by the board... by the county. That's where you get more taxes from.”

He later addressed the board again, showing that neighboring Alleghany County, N.C., had cut $1.8 million from its budget this year.

Jerry Testerman spoke next. As a former fire chief, he attended several budget meetings in the past.

Testerman said at one of those meetings, he remembered hearing someone say: “Go ahead and raise taxes. I rent, it's not going to affect me.”

That comment, Testerman said, stuck with him all these years. “I know we need all our services. But the main service I get from Grayson County is my trash picked up. That's all I get from Grayson County.”

Testerman felt that it was unfair to require more money from the land owners in the county, while those renting homes get “a free ride.”

He said he was “tired of it.”

Testerman added that those renting properties were getting a free education for their children and it was time the board did something about it.

“Don't just tack this on top of what [the land owners] are already paying,” he said.

Testerman has a cabin that he uses two weeks a year during deer season, and questioned why he would have to pay the $3 weekly fee on trash service for the entire year.

“We're going to have to pay for trash pickup when we don't have any,” he said. “Tell me where it's fair. Is it fair? Not one bit!”

While he understood the board was in a tough spot with the budget, he felt that something more fair would be a sales tax that would hit everyone, not just the land owners.

“You're missing the boat right there,” he said. “That's the fairest tax going. Everyone pays it, not just ones that own land.”

Wilton Dolinger of Independence commended the board members for their hard work on the budget.

Dolinger, however, felt that the supervisors overlooked a few things and that there was still “fat” that could be taken out of each budget.

Regarding the trash pickup, Dolinger questioned if having bins placed throughout the county would be cheaper, instead of running trash trucks door-to-door.

Elaine Kirk noted that she was an 83-year-old on a fixed income who didn't quality for the tax relief.

She said the trash fee alone would cost her an additional $300 a year, as she has two homes in her name. Kirk recycles, but if she has to pay that much, she said she would simply begin throwing everything away.

“If you help the people on the tax relief program, you should help the senior citizens on fixed income,” she said.

Jennifer Snow of Independence said that she was also in the ranks of the unemployed and on a fixed income.

“We can't afford any increases,” she told the board. “I think you should really look at what you're doing. There are lots of salaries that can be cut back. We've lost all of our salary, so 5-10 percent [off a person's salary] means a lot.”

Snow continued to say that the trash pickup fee is “absolutely ridiculous” because residents are already paying it on their electric bill.

“Consider the people that are living here,” she said. “I'm going to have to go out of the county to get a job... Gas is going up... Electric is going up... You're just driving people out, people who want to live here.”

Snow told the board to look at bringing industry to the county. “If we had industry and jobs, we wouldn't have to worry about this.”

With no further comments, Maynard closed the public hearing.

Addressing Concerns

Board members took a few minutes to address some of the ideas brought up during the public hearing.

Maynard said his impression is that the county could not pass a sales tax, but that it was state-regulated.

Sweet said he'd have to do some research, but Maynard was correct in saying the state regulates what the counties can and can not do.

Maynard then asked Sweet if the county had any control over the rising cost regarding care of prisoners.

“No sir,” Sweet said of the required contract the county has with the New River Regional Jail in Dublin.

The county is, however, working on a Day Report Center that could potentially cut down on the number of inmates sent to the jail and bring in some revenue.

Giles County is saving significant money each month with the program.

Supervisor Doug Carrico is in charge of working on the program, and said a meeting was planned later in the week to talk more about it.

Sweet then said that there were discussions of “fat” that could be cut from the budget, but, that looking back over the past several budgets, it appeared the board has tried to do that consistently. “At some point you reach the break-even point where it can't be cut,” he said.

Overall, if the county took out the school investments, the budget would be significantly less than the 2008-09 budget, Sweet added. “A lot of this increase in fact comes from school investment, which is an investment in our future.”

Maynard reiterated the point that Grayson has the lowest tax rate by far in Virginia, and that past boards have always been consistent in taking as little out of the citizens' pockets as possible.

Grayson is 8 cents below the next-lowest tax levy in the state, which is Highland County. Even with the 4-cent increase — and if Highland doesn't increase its levy — Grayson would still be 4 cents below the next-lowest rate.

“We are going to keep our lowest tax rate in the state,” Maynard said. “I'm proud to say that.”

While Maynard said he understands there are a lot of people out of work in Grayson. It's always been said that the best way to fix that problem is to make sure citizens receive a good education — which is what the county is doing.

Maynard said that most in the room may not have any children that will be going through the school system anytime soon, but someone paid for his education and someone paid to educate everyone in attendance.

Now, he said, it's time to pay for the children's education today.

Supervisors' Vice Chairman Larry Bartlett agreed. “I was part of that decision,” he said of the long-term facilities update plan for the school system. “That decision will lead this county into the future... We must pay for schools, while maintaining public services and we're maintaining public services at a frugal cost.”