Hearing signals tax hike or cuts in county|[08/13/2008]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A property tax increase was looking more likely Tuesday as Warren County supervisors mulled three proposals during continuing budget talks.

Their sessions were to continue Thursday and Friday.

If approved, any of the three $15.7 million spending plans now on the table would raise millage rates at least 3.05 mills, which would raise about $1.4 million more from local taxpayers. Supervisors say the county needs the cash, which calculates to about $28 per person, for rising fuel costs in the road, sheriff’s and volunteer fire departments. Other parts of drafts under consideration include 2.7 additional mills for the road fund, eyed for preserving road employee pay raises and, in the process, raising by $389,000 the portion of road and bridge funds shared with the City of Vicksburg.

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In the process, residential taxpayers would pay more than an extra $30 per $100,000 in assessed valuation compared to this year. The owner of a home valued at $100,000 inside the city would pay at least $928.20 in taxes. Outside the city, county residents would pay $569.40.

Besides fuel costs, slower growth of land rolls and car tags this year has loomed as a warning sign to local government wary of raising taxes before the first dollars are spent on a pending major expense – jail construction.

“I don’t care what reason you give them, no one is for tax increases,” District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said.

Without the hikes, cuts are the only way to keep taxes steady, County Administrator John Smith said.

Details have been scant on how the city will move on its budget for 2008-09, but Mayor Laurence Leyens said late Tuesday he was still confident of keeping city taxes steady.

“We’re being very conservative this year due to the recession and we’ll be operating a tight budget, but we are not going to raise taxes,” he said.

Warren County property owners receive one bill, usually in December, that covers taxes for the county, the city and the Vicksburg Warren School District. New tax rates on vehicles start before that, on Oct. 1.

The city’s public budget hearing on budgeting is scheduled for Aug. 20 at 6 p.m. The budget is expected to be adopted at its Sept. 2 meeting, the same day supervisors are expected to adopt a spending plan.

Vicksburg’s $28.8 million budget and the county’s $15.2 million this year relied on tax roll additions and tax rates were not increased. For the coming year, values were up, but not nearly as sharply. Bright spots include six hotels and a fifth casino under construction. Property taxes are collected in arrears, however, meaning new construction must be on the books a year before taxes based on their full value are due.

Cash reserves to cover expenses in the road and port improvement funds are $600,000 and $44,000, respectively, both dramatic decreases from last year. The first of a series of $180,000 bond payments relating to port improvements, including a T-dock replacement, is due Oct. 1, Smith said, prompting the need for a temporary, one-year hike of .13 mills to cover that cost.

Paying for jail planning is pegged at $136,250 for the coming year. A Colorado consulting firm, Voorhis/Robertson Justice Services Inc., was hired in July to draft early plans and compile information that officials said will be used to pick a site and determine how a new jail will be financed. That report is expected within the year. When construction starts, there will likely be a bond issue to cover the capital cost with payback over a 10-year period.

While fuel needs in the road and sheriff’s departments may be absorbed through the millage increase, an extra $12,000 toward the county’s six volunteer fire departments will come with added oversight. Supervisors favored distribution of gas money to reflect frequency of fire responses by each district instead of equal funds the districts receive now.

Elsewhere in the preliminary budget drafts, some expenses mentioned previously will survive while others will be axed.

Raises for 911 dispatchers and overtime pay for sheriff’s deputies will survive, while a new courthouse roof and refurbishments for the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library will be postponed, Smith said.

In one budget version, money for an animal control officer appears at a projected cost of $53,282 via an increase in the county’s contract with the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society. No consensus has emerged on the issue in recent weeks, as logs released by emergency dispatch showed 650 calls in the past year dealt with cases of animals being a nuisance and not with situations calling for enforcement of the county’s vicious animal ordinance.

District 1 Supervisor David McDonald said some type of split in the cost of an enforcement officer would benefit the public and cut calls to the county, particularly his office. Others said the sheriff’s department’s handling of such instances was by choice and not by duty.

“(Sheriff Martin Pace) is the one wasting his time on that,” District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale said. “If the call doesn’t specifically address the ordinance, then no one needs to be sent out there.”

Two raises enabled by acts of the state Legislature this year will meet different fates in Warren County, resulting in a net plus for the county payroll.

Autopsy fees paid to Coroner Doug Huskey will rise from $550 per autopsy to $1,050, while fees per inquest for Huskey and the two deputy coroners will increase from $85 to $125 each.

A pay raise for County Prosecutor Richard Johnson – one that supervisors favored initially – was swept away as part of three orders this week from County Judge Johnny Price, who eliminated Johnson as prosecutor for the Youth Court, over which Price also presides, in favor of local attorney Jami Crews.

Legislation enabled supervisors to pay Johnson as a full-time employee and set a possible salary of $92,853, or 90 percent of the county court judge’s $103,170 salary. Currently, Johnson is paid $44,812, the same as supervisors.

However, Price’s order cited state laws on youth court appointments by installing Crews as a $6,000-a-year prosecutor, including benefits, to be paid with county funds. A third order hired Crews as a law clerk with a $45,750 annual salary to be paid using grant funds from the Administrative Office of Courts.

Donations to charitable organizations will increase by at least $20,000 over last year’s $600,000. Pending legislative approval, groups that could see more funding include Keep Vicksburg-Warren Beautiful, Community Council of Warren County, which delivers meals to the elderly, and Warren Washington Issaquena Sharkey Community Action Agency, which defrays the cost of energy bills for low-income earners.

BUDGET HEARINGSThe City of Vicksburg’s budget hearing will be at 6 p.m. Aug. 20. The budget is expected to be adopted Sept. 2.Warren County has no public hearings scheduled before its budget adoption meeting Sept. 2.ON THE AGENDAMeeting Tuesday, the Warren County Board of Supervisors:Decided against making changes in property tax valuations involving two formal objections filed with the Tax Assessor’s Office.One, by Columbia Properties Vicksburg LLC, the local subsidiary of Horizon Casino’s Kentucky-based controlling group, Columbia Sussex, contained no new information on the company’s nine parcels that would warrant a change, Deputy Tax Assessor Jim Agent told supervisors.The other, filed by a property tax firm representing eight apartment complexes in Vicksburg, was also dismissed by the board. The highest valued, Magnolia Commons, kept its $6.4 million value as a result of a lawsuit two years ago by its owners against the county.Executed project agreements for road and bank stabilization for LeTourneau, Oak Ridge, Ballground, Kirkland, Dogwood, Whatley, Redwood and Boy Scout roads. The $2.8 million list was approved by the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service program in July. Most of the work will be alongside LeTourneau, heavily damaged by this spring’s Mississippi River flooding.Approved a $19,734 change order to electrical work on the bottom floor of the building at First North and Clay streets, under renovation for the E-911 Dispatch Center’s new base. Quotes will be taken on similar work to the upstairs portion, officials said.Accepted the election qualifying petition for District 4 Election Commissioner John Rundell.