A tiny fraction of Swansboro citizens – only four out of more than 3,300 – chose to speak at a public hearing on the town’s budget proposed for 2022-23, but they were of one mind.
All of them believed the commissioners should have lowered the tax rate in this year of revaluation.
The hearing, which took place during the June 13 meeting of the Swansboro Board of Commissioners, was preceded by a presentation of the proposed budget by Paula Webb, town manager. And she made a couple of key points, one of which is that the budget is funded without having to having to dip into the undesignated fund balance. It has been a number of years since the town could say that.
A federal infusion of funds certainly helped, according to the manager.
“We were awarded a little over $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds,” Webb said.
Not all of that money is included in this year’s budget.
“We are also happy to report that we didn’t use any fund balance,” Webb said.
In her brief report, Webb said that the budget would fund new and replacement staff, including two maintenance technicians ($100,690), a projects coordinator ($61,253), a chief Inspector ($73,246) and three firefighters ($172,044).
A facility supervisor ($58,096) that would be shared between Parks and Recreation and to oversee the Church Street Dock was among items requested but not funded.
Under the town’s Capital Improvement Plan, $138,200 was set aside for major purchases such as fire equipment and police vehicles.
Requested, by unfunded, were funds for park property acquisition.
Capital outlay requests approved, including Christmas lights, paving equipment and a dump truck, amounted to $153,000.
(For a comparison of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 budget estimates, see related article.)
Many of the items included this year had been requested and ignored for at least the past three years, according to Webb.
Roy Herrick, a former town commissioner, was the first person from the public to address budget.
He said that with revaluation, the town experienced a gain of $144 million in property value, “or 27 percent.”
Based on the proposed tax rate of 35 cents per $100, Swansboro would collect $2,344,000 in the coming year, compared to $1,835,000 in current ad valorem taxes, according to Herrick.
“That is an increase of $509,000 or 28 percent,” he said. “The citizens of Swansboro, 21 percent of whom make less than $25,000 a year, are being asked to pay … 27 percent more to the town of Swansboro.”
Herrick noted that the increase in taxes will be in addition to the increase in living expenses caused by inflation.
“Anyone with a rational mind understands that this increase in home value is temporary and will decline in the 2026 assessment,” Herrick said.
As for the current property valuation for the town, Herrick said, “That number went too far, too fast because of extraordinary circumstances. The other thing going up too far too fast is the total budget.”
Herrick said that between 2015 and 2022the Consumer Price Index went up 23.4 percent. In that same time, the town’s spending has gone up 37.4 percent, “or a 60 percent increase over the national rate of inflation.”
Included in the spending is a 16 percent increase in full-time employment, according to Herrick.
He urged the board to scale back spending – focus only on the necessities – and reduce the tax rate.
“We seemed to have confused the needs with the wants,” Herrick said. “You each owe it to the residents to explain why this is justified and necessary.”
Doug Eckendorf of Swansboro opened his comments with background. He said that the mean income for a Swansboro resident is between $58,000 and $60,000.
“How far does that go?” he asked. “After food, transportation and housing and medical insurance, there isn’t any left.”
Eckendorf said that in previous meetings, working with a consultant, commissioners discussed the “revenue neutral solution.” He claimed the board would choose to reduce the tax rate to revenue neutral.
According to the UNC School of Government website: The revenue-neutral property tax rate is the rate that is estimated to produce revenue for the next fiscal year equal to the revenue that would have been produced for the next fiscal year by the current tax rate if no reappraisal had occurred.
“If you’ve got integrity, you should stick to your word,” Eckendorf said. And, he added, “You do owe us an explanation as to why keeping the tax … is justified.”
Cynthia LaCorte of Swansboro agreed with Eckendorf. She said the budget as proposed would create a hardship for many.
“I’m not here for myself tonight,” LaCorte said. “If you sock it to me, I’m going to pay the bill. But there are a lot of people suffering in our community, and I’m here for them.
“And you all should be here for them as well. The people of Swansboro cannot afford what you are getting ready to vote for. They can’t.
“You need to stay within the budget and find a way to make it work, without burdening the people of Swansboro.”
“If you do burden the people of Swansboro,” she added, the sitting commissioners should expect opposition at the polls. “I’ve already talked to several people. We are going to put a campaign together to unseat you, if you vote for this.”
When he went to the podium, Junior Freeman mentioned that he was a town commissioner from 2010 until 2014.
“We made it a point to lower the taxes 3 cents at that time,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Freeman said the 27 percent increase in property tax collection would affect everyone in town.
And, he added, he believed that property values would remain high in Swansboro.
“The general consensus is once it goes up, it don’t comedown,” Freeman said.
With collection for beer and wine taxes and sales taxes e going up, “We need to lower the taxes.”
He urged the board to look at lowering the tax rate.
Mayor John Davis was the first member of the board to address the budget, and he said he had been unsuccessful in influencing his fellow members.
“I asked the board to consider reducing our tax rate,” he said.
Davis said that his most recent plea was made that very day, by text that morning. Again, he said he was unsuccessful.
“It was decided the board would not consider that at this time,” he said.
Davis said that he believes with revaluation, the town will reap a windfall of sorts.
“I feel we are taking advantage of a temporary increase with our budget,” he said. “It concerns me we are maximizing this 27 percent increase in ad valorem taxes.”
He claimed Swansboro has a poverty rate of between 15 and 20 percent, and there are many people on fixed incomes. “All of that concerns me,” Davis said.
Commissioner Larry Philpott detailed his reasons for supporting the budget as presented.
“One of the things, in looking over this budget, was some of the shortfalls the town has experienced over the last 10 or 12 years,” he said. For quite some time the town has been unable to implement plans that have been developed. “That was one of the things that was considered this year.”
Philpott said the understaffed planning department is typical of the needs that were not being met. As a result the Swansboro Historic District has not been adequately patrolled.
“One person in the planning department was just not enough to be able to enforce,” he said.
Capital improvements have strained the town’s public works department. And, adding staff to the fire department was “very, very important.”
“If you start adding all these salaries up, each one of those you get into … a penny, a penny, a penny,” Philpott said.
Philpott also asked Sonia Johnson, finance director, to provide an explanation for revenue neutral, which she did. Johnson said the revenue neutral tax rate is 34.22 cents per $100, virtually the same as the current rate of 35 cents.
Commissioner Frank Tursi also offered reasons for his support of the budget.
“I support this budget, and I’ll tell you why,” he said. “It was mentioned tonight the tax cut that was done a few years ago. The town has been behind the eight ball ever since.
“It is easy politically to cut taxes, it’s not so easy to raise them.”
The lasting effect of underfunding is, essentially, “deficit spending.”
“Last year we had to borrow from our savings … for a bare-bones budget.” There was no money for needed vehicles.
“We had staff that was being paid less than … equivalent staff in other communities our size,” Tursi said. “We were getting farther and farther behind.”
For two specific reasons, the town was in a position to catch up in 2022-23.
“This year we finally caught up, thanks to reevaluation and an infusion of federal tax dollars.
“Last year was very difficult. We had to reach into our savings.
“We are finally catching up,” Tursi continued, “to cut the tax rate, even to revenue neutral, would be a step backward, So, I support this budget, and I’ll vote for it. I’ll make a motion to approve it because finally, we are up to where we should have been.
Commissioner Jeff Conaway said this budget provides needed funds to increase police department salaries.
“For me it was an easy choice,” he said.
Conaway pointed out that he made a campaign promise to not raise taxes, and in this case he did not.
But when it comes to support the police department, he added, “I’m going to do what I can.”
Commissioner Pat Turner, likewise, said she would not raise taxes. She also said it is important to take care of the citizens and it is important to take care of the town staff.
“Quite frankly, in the last few years, the wants and the needs are the same,” Turner said. “I support the budget the way it is and I’ll vote for it.”
Commissioner P.J. Pugliese made it five-for-five in support of the document as prepared. He mentioned the tax cuts of 10 years ago as a factor.
“We have been trying to catch up ever since,” Pugliese said. And, he added, “It’s short-sighted to try to give … a little relief now. I support the budget.”
The motion to approve passed with a 5-0 vote.
Before moving to the next agenda item, Davis looked to the staff that prepared the budget. “Thank you for your hard work,” he said.
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the June 22, 2022, Tideland News.