Scant growth keeps school tax hike likely

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 19, 2014

The math on another property tax increase was in plain sight of Warren County supervisors ever since public school officials signed off in June on a 4 percent hike in their millage rate.

On Friday, lower tax revenue expected from real and personal property was the piece that rounded out a tax puzzle that pointed to tax bills on homes and businesses being about $20 higher on average in 2014.

“I have the information to determine what it’ll be right now,” County Administrator John Smith said after the first version of a budget for 2014-15 showed spending nearly equal to the $15 million plan adopted for this year. Vicksburg Warren School District trustees’ decision — made before land values were released — factors into the value of 1 mill on the draft budget. It’s expected to generate $524,274 based on property values that grew less than half of 1 percent this year. A school millage of 49.81 means a county tax bill of about $498.10 for a residential property assessed at $100,000, based on the version discussed Friday. Bills this year based on 47.81 mills were about $478.10 for every $100,000 assessed. Those figures don’t include additional taxes levied for fire protection in the Culkin, Fisher Ferry, Bovina and Eagle Lake volunteer fire districts.

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A formal request for dollars from VWSD to fund public schools is expected by late August. Projections Friday based on land values pointed to a $26.3 million request this year, higher than the $25.7 million the district received last year. Supervisors expect to adopt a final budget by Sept. 2. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

Changes in the draft the board discussed Friday are a near-certainty. Summertime numbers-crunching the past decade has produced up to seven different versions before being adopted in September. Road Manager Buddy Poole and County Court Judge Johnny Price sit down with supervisors Thursday, while Sheriff Martin Pace and District Attorney Ricky Smith do so on Friday. Another set of figures, that of property tax revenue from public utilities such as phone lines and natural gas pipelines, aren’t expected until late August.

Pay raises for sheriff’s deputies and road department crews did not appear in the initial version. The topic figures to be prominent in meetings next week. The board had asked Pace to cut unfunded positions in order to spread the money to the lowest-paid deputies. When the finished document was adopted in September, it factored in cuts in appraisals for seven of 18 entities that had formally objected to their property values. The move provided an out for supervisors looking to cut spending in light of barely-measurable growth.

The initial version showed the sheriff’s department has asked for 10 more vehicles and a prisoner transport van. A list of general fund items in the 15-page packet showed the department funded at $3,405,038, or $27,345 more than last year.

With a tax increase due to the school system already assured, the board on Friday scrutinized everything it could about every spending item.

“So, what do we need a transport van for?” Board President Bill Lauderdale said of the sheriff’s department’s equipment requests. “If you have but two people to bring, you can throw them into a patrol car and do it a whole lot cheaper than a van.”

Revenue-based taxes paid to the county by Vicksburg’s four casinos are off 4.7 percent so far this fiscal year, Smith said. The $1.86 million taken in so far formed the basis of a $2 million estimate for the entire fiscal year, a projection Smith conceded he kept low because gaming revenue hasn’t hit the same highs it did before the worst of the national recession.

In a recurring theme for budget time, supervisors said they’d seek answers from the local judiciary on why more court fines aren’t being collected. A breakdown distributed to the board Friday showed $245,953.60 collected in circuit, justice and county courts, ahead of last year’s pace for all three courts. However, the total to date made up just 61.2 percent of the $401,622.23 in claims through June for indigent defense cases. The county had contracted with a private debt collections agency in 2009-10 and accepted proposals on another in May. A public defender system to rein in costs of providing legal defense to people who say they have no money has been discussed but not put into place.

“We’ve got judges on the bench not collecting money, and we want to hire a collections agency?” District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said.

Health insurance costs showed a $290,075 projection for fiscal 2015, same as this year. However, supervisors said this year has been another “high” one for major medical claims. So far, 15 county employees have hit a $55,000 plateau in their coverage when the county becomes responsible for paying claims for various doctor visits, surgical procedures and more.“We’ve had heart conditions, heart attacks, cancer, hysterectomies,” Smith said. “It’s an abnormal amount of people. And it just puts pressure on our health plan.”