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Gaston commissioners postpone vote on budget

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    Gaston County commissioners will consider the 2013-2014 budget on June 27 at 6 p.m.

    The meeting will be in the Harley B. Gaston Jr. Public Forum, Gaston County Courthouse, 325 North Marietta St., Gastonia.



GASTONIA Awaiting word on state funding levels to Gaston County, commissioners have postponed a final vote on a new budget that could mean a tax increase or cuts in services and layoffs.

An overflow crowd turned out for Thursday night’s budget hearing. The majority, including county employees and teachers, spoke in favor of a 5.4-cent property tax increase. But several opposed a hike and asked commissioners to find alternatives.

Commissioners tabled a vote on the budget until June 27, citing “uncertainties” in the state budget. The board wanted to wait and see how much state funding the county will get. Also, board chairman Mickey Price was out of town on business. He has proposed a compromise – a 2.5 cent tax increase and trimming $700,000 from Gaston College and $1.4 million from county schools.

“No matter what we do we will not be able to tax our way out of this situation,” said Vice Chairman Tracy Philbeck.

He said the average local wage was $16 per hour and that raising taxes “will affect a large part of Gaston County.”

“Some folks this is going to hurt,” he said. “And we need to be mindful of that.”

In 2006 and 2007 Gaston County voters approved approximately $100 million in bonds for Gaston College and Gaston County schools, which would have required a tax increase of 10.35 cents. When the recession hit the county chose to pay for the bonds from its fund balance or savings account instead of raising taxes.

Just over half of the bonds have been issued and the budget proposes a property tax increase of 5.4 cents per $100 valuation to pay off the bonds. The current property tax rate is 83.5 cents per $100 valuation has been in place since 2008, when commissioners reduced the rate from 89.3 cents. If the proposed 5.4 tax increase passes, the owner of a $125,000 home would pay $67.50 more per year.

At Thursday’s hearing, County Manager Jan Winters said there had been no tax increase in 12 years and that the county had been dipping into its fund balance or savings. He said this downward trend was “unsustainable.”

Winters said that about 4,000 people responded to a community survey on the budget proposal that was posted on the county website. On the question of cutting human services, he said about 73 percent supported the tax increase and maintaining services. On the question of cutting schools. 90.5 percent were against it.

During the hearing, speakers underscored how harmful cuts would be to county employees, schools, social programs, libraries and museums.

If the county cut a proposed $400,000 from the sheriff’s office budget “nine of my hard-working folks would go home without a job…,” said Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger.

Educators said the school district is underfunded and that teachers need higher salaries.

“I’m really concerned about the state of our school system and what happens if it doesn’t get adequate funding,” said Mary Beth Jenkins, a small business owner and parent. “Our facilities are old and dilapidated. We don’t have a choice. We’ll be in big trouble if we don’t play catch up.”

County employees complained of not having a raise in more than four years and asked for fair compensation.

The proposed budget doesn’t include a salary increase for employees. They spoke of low morale, frustration and fading hopes and supported a tax increase.

But others didn’t.

Belmont resident Rebecca Schwinderman questioned the community survey results and said she had “seen a lot of fat in the school budget.”

She told commissioners that “we need more accountability before we raise taxes.”

Former teacher Jennifer Stepp called the survey “very biased” and that its specter of drastic cuts in services “evoked emotion and fear.”

“It’s not a good sample of the community as a whole,” she said.

Instead of a tax hike, “We need to find other ways to fund programs,” she said. “A dollar can only go so far. It’s getting hard to buy groceries.”

Board vice chairman Tracy Philbeck later said the survey “incited fear and angst” and that the board needed to reprioritize programs.

Before adjourning, Commissioner Chad Brown told the audience: “We value what you do for the community.”

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