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BOLIVIA — Although they haven’t officially voted on a property tax increase, Brunswick County commissioners don’t plan on an increase in the coming year. Commissioners recommended maintaining the current tax rate of 44.25 cents per $100 of value, according to presentations during their Thursday, March 6, budget retreat.
It was one of commissioners’ goals to adopt a county budget for fiscal 2014‐15 that maintains the property tax rate of $.4425 — one of the lowest rates among counties in North Carolina with a population of more than 100,000.
A referendum added to the May 6 primary election ballot that could raise the sales tax a quarter-cent would help the county address two major issues: beach renourishment and school improvement projects.
County Commissioners Chairman Phil Norris has said he prefers to share the cost with Brunswick County visitors than put it on residents.
“Rather than pay through property taxes, we can pay with sales tax,” Norris said.
County manager Ann Hardy said the county tax rate of 44.25 cents would not rise but does not provide needed funds to assist beach communities with dredging, beach renourishment, public beach access and terminal groin construction, or meet capital needs of the school system regardless.
This would mark the fourth consecutive year without a property tax hike, which has been a priority for the commissioners.
“The referendum is for capital needs that aren’t funded by the county,” Hardy said.
If the referendum is voted down, she said, commissioners could vote to raise the property tax to fund those items.
“But that’s speculation,” Hardy said. “Right now, I’m working on building a recommended budget around the (44.25 cents) rate. The commissioners have decided to have the sales tax referendum to protect the low county property tax rate and fund these much-needed items.”
Overall, Hardy said, the retreat gives commissioners ample time to analyze the data before any final decisions are made based on the presentations.
“I felt like we were able to provide the commissioners a lot of information that they’ll have time to look at during the budget development process,” she said. “They heard from our agencies and departments and their needs. They have a better understanding of our projected revenues and budgets.”
The biggest proposed change at the retreat would be a change to the county’s fire district supplemental funding model.
The squads now receive money from fire fees collected in their district plus the supplements from the county. But many of the smaller departments still struggle to even cover operating expenses.
For several years, fire departments have expressed concerns that the existing fire fee funding system, established by three separate bills passed by the legislature between 1999‐2001, has not kept up with the increased costs associated with running a fire department in the Brunswick County of today. Several departments say they can't make ends meet, but they don’t know what amount of money will correct that.
Scott Garner, the county’s fire marshal, said a change will standardize how the supplemental funds are distributed and make sure the fire departments that are struggling get the money they need.
There are 10,342 parcels within Brunswick County that do not pay fire fees because they are located within the corporate limits of Bald Head Island (2,546), St. James (5,361), or outside of all fire insurance rating districts (2,435).
Emergency services has looked into whether a service district could be created to encompass the 2,435 parcels within the unincorporated area of the county not included in fire fee districts. It appears that this would not be an available option for these areas. The county attorney’s office is looking at all possible options for any feasible solutions, however.
The committee worked to create a baseline or a template budget to determine what the minimum equitable funding for fire departments should be. The committee’s baseline/template budget figured that an equitable amount of $263,000 is what the minimum funding level for a fire department in Brunswick County should be. The departments that do not meet that baseline or receive the supplemental funding according to the presentations, are Bald Head Island, Bolivia, Civietown, Navassa, Northwest, Shallotte, Shallotte Point, Waccamaw, Winnabow and Yaupon Beach. Some departments may require more than that figure baseline to provide fire services.
The departments that do not make this baseline must be able to justify what the additional funding will provide for their district.
“Some that have received (supplemental money) in the past would not get it,” he said.
The county clerk of courts requested funds to add video conferencing in courtrooms.
The technology would enable inmates to make first appearances without having to be transferred from the jail, said Clerk of Superior Court Jim MacCallum. It would cost the county about $28,000. There is no timetable for a decision on this matter.
MacCallum said video conferencing would alleviate security concerns sheriff’s deputies face when walking inmates back and forth from the courtroom to the Brunswick County Detention Facility.
As many as 20 inmates are taken from the detention facility to the court house in a day, MacCallum said.
The proposal to add video conferencing has been approved by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis and Senior District Court Judge Jerry Jolly, MacCallum said.
MacCallum has visited the New Hanover County Courthouse where video conferencing is available for first appearances, and he said their system is “very efficient.”
Two systems would be installed in two Superior Court rooms if approved by the county commissioners.
“I’m very hopeful the county commissioners will look favorably upon this,” MacCallum said. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor.”
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or email@example.com.