CAPE CARTERET — Town Manager Zach Steffey gave commissioners a third draft of the 2019-20 budget Tuesday that calls for 0.5-cent property tax increase to make up for an expected revenue shortage resulting from decreased property values in the wake of Hurricane Florence last September.
The board, which met for its third budget work session in town hall off Dolphin Street, briefly started trying to find ways to cut expenditures to eliminate the potential hike, but in the end, held off, except for eliminating $5,000 to pay for fire inspections of businesses.
The Western Carteret Fire and EMS Department has taken over that task for the businesses in its district, so the town no longer has to pay.
Mr. Steffey opened the session by telling the board he believes the county will reduce property values in town based on residents’ appeals because of hurricane damage, in some cases complete losses of homes, leaving only land to be valued.
But, he added, the county board that will make those final determinations won’t meet until later in April, so there’s no way yet to know for sure.
Near the end of the meeting, Mayor Dave Fowler said there was no reason for the board to do much to adjust the budget until officials know more about the valuation.
“I feel like this meeting is premature,” he said. “Until we know more, we can’t really go forward.”
That, he said, is OK because there’s plenty of time before the budget must be adopted Sunday, June 30, the last day of this fiscal year.
“We’re not ahead of the game, but we’re not really behind either,” he said.
The mayor also indicated he wasn’t much in favor of a half-cent property tax increase, which would raise the rate from the current 21.25 cents per $100 of assessed value to 21.75 cents.
“A half-cent … you could (go through the budget) and round everything down” to perhaps find enough to eliminate the increase, he said. “Sometimes you can solve budgets with very easy solutions.
“If we do a half-cent (increase), that solves it for (a year), but not for the future. We need to set a rate (that will work) for years to come so we don’t have to go through this … torture every year,” he concluded.
The mayor said the manager’s $1.647 million budget is within about $19,000 of being balanced without the tax increase.
“$1.6 million of the budget looks great,” he said. “It’s that ‘47’ we’re haggling over. But I think in 20 days we’ll be where we need to be, and I don’t see any reason to schedule another meeting” until the county finalizes the total valuation.
Commissioner Steve Martin said he was ready to approve the budget for public hearing, as presented Tuesday by Mr. Steffey, with the half-cent tax increase.
But commissioners Mike King and Charlie Evans, as they have in past budget sessions this spring, urged the board and manager to eliminate a $20,000 expenditure Mr. Steffey included to begin development of a kayak-launch park on land the town is buying on Pettiford Creek off Highway 58. Most of the purchase would be funded with a state grant.
During the last session, Mr. Martin and commissioners Minnie Truax and Don Miller opposed eliminating the town’s share of the purchase.
This time, Mr. Miller said he was no longer so sure, because Mr. Steffey’s previous draft budget included that money without needing any tax increase. Now there’s a tax increase proposed, however small.
Mr. King said no matter how the board proceeds, he’s concerned about future budgets.
“If we don’t reduce our (spending) appetite, I think we’re looking at a 25- or 30-cent tax rate” at some point, he said.
Mr. Evans agreed. He said he realizes the likely county downward valuation of property is a problem, but said the “easy way (to solve it) is to delay the Highway 58 (kayak park) development.”
Mr. Martin disagreed, and the board took no action and did not schedule its next work session.
Mr. King also sought once more to delay expenditures for a new truck and tractor for the public works department, but got no support from the others.
Ms. Truax called the current equipment in the department “embarrassing” and outdated, barely useable, and Mr. Martin said the public works director, Danny Taylor, had told the board both pieces of equipment were needed. The budget, for the first time, calls for the town to finance those equipment purchases and get them right away instead of putting away money for a future cash purchase.
If the board agrees to the half-cent tax increase, the average homeowner would see a tax bill increase from $468 in 2018-19 to $479 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, which begins Monday, July 1.
Town resident and developer Paxon Holz was at the meeting and wanted to speak, but there was no public comment time on the agenda.
Mayor Fowler said he hadn’t anticipated anyone would want to make comments, since the board must hold a formal public hearing before adopting the budget.
Town Clerk Ashleigh Huffman said she would add a public comment section to the agenda for the next work session.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.