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Forsyth Co. manager proposes budget with no tax increase

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Forsyth County Commissioners (from left) Everette Witherspoon, Vice Chair Gloria D. Whisenhunt, Chairman Richard Linville, Bill Whiteheart and Walter Marshall observe a moment of silence at the beginning of their meeting on Monday, May 12, 2014 in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Forsyth County Manager Dudley Watts on Thursday unveiled his proposed budget for 2014-15 – a “no frills” budget that has no tax increase and little growth.

Watts is recommending a budget of $401.2 million, a roughly $1.4 million increase – or 0.34 percent – from the current budget of $399.8 million.

His budget would hold the current tax rate at 71.68 cents for every $100 of taxable property. Under that rate, the county tax on a $150,000 house would remain at $1,075.20.

Watts presented his recommendation to the county commissioners at a briefing.

“You’ve got a very no frills continuation budget that really doesn’t have anything new to speak of,” Watts told the commissioners. “We’ve tried in it to do what we can do to kind of shore up the fundamentals.”

Watts said no tax increase was a message he heard loud and clear as a board objective.

“I was happy with it,” Commissioner Mark Baker said. “I’m happy with any budget that doesn’t raise taxes and keeps service where it’s at, so it’s a pretty conservative budget.”

“I’ve certainly seen a lot worse,” Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said Thursday night.

Schools a hot topic

Last year the commissioners’ tax rate increase from 67.4 cents to 71.68 cents was still below the revenue neutral rate of 74.18 cents that Watts had proposed after a drop in property values during revaluation. A penny now generates $3.1 million for the county compared to the $3.3 million generated before the 2013 revaluation.

Commissioners agree that school funding will probably be a hot topic during upcoming budget meetings.

Under Watts’ proposal, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools would see a $679,590 or 0.6 percent decrease in funding from last year.

Though the county’s school funding formula will generate more than it did last year, Watts’ proposal does not include the special $1.4 million hold harmless appropriation that commissioners gave schools last year.

The school system requested $116.3 million this year – $118 million if you include the annual $1.7 million capital appropriation that the county programs in for routine maintenance and repairs. Watts is recommending $113.75 million, including the $1.7 million.

“That’s what the formula pretty much calls for, but that doesn’t mean we won’t make some adjustments if we can,” Commissioner Walter Marshall said.

The county appropriation for Forsyth Technical Community College would be $9.5 million, an increase of $621,170 or 7.3 percent. The increase is driven by the opening of new facilities at the Oak Grove Center and the biotechnology campus. Watts’ recommended budget does not include the college’s special $9.3 million request for main campus renovations.

‘Responsibly optimistic’

Watts’ budget includes $1.4 million for county salary adjustments, an increase of $275,845. There is also a $274,645 increase for vehicle replacements.

The budget proposal keeps the Youth Detention Center and Cleveland Avenue Dental Clinic open, despite conversations this year about closing those facilities because of their budget shortfalls.

The Sheriff’s Office’s move to the new Forsyth County Public Safety Center drives a $239,343 increase in operational costs. The sheriff’s total budget would be $41.7 million, only a 0.01 percent total increase from last year. The recommendation does not include 43 new full-time positions requested by the department.

Watts said his budget relies on “responsibly optimistic” revenue projections. The state enacted changes that will make more items subject to sales tax this year. As a result, the county expects sales tax revenue to grow by $2 million or 3.7 percent in the coming year.

The budget would keep the board under its 15 percent debt ceiling limit with a net debt service to total expenditures ratio of 14.2 percent. New debt service includes money for the library construction projects that will soon be underway.

Over the next few weeks the commissioners will drill into the numbers to hash out a final budget.

Commissioner Bill Whiteheart said Thursday’s briefing was kind of like when football captains take the field for the coin toss and handshakes.

“The game will really start on Thursday next week,” Whiteheart said.