ELIZABETHTOWN - No one commented on Essex County's proposed 2014 budget at a public hearing on it Monday night.
The budget would include a 15 percent hike in the tax levy, which would require an override of the state's tax cap.
At the start of the hearing, county Manager Dan Palmer gave a nearly 40-minute presentation on the budget, which supervisors praised as extensive and said put the spending plan into terms people could understand.
Out of the handful of members of the public who came to the hearing, one person signed up to speak during the comment session. But when he was called on, the man said Palmer had answered all his questions.
Palmer noted that Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas assembled a budget subcommittee in January, and that group has been meeting with department heads every two weeks to review their budgets.
"So really, we've been looking at the budget since January," Palmer said.
The budget Palmer put together with Linda Wolf, the county's certified public accountant and purchasing agent, would begin a five-year plan to reduce the tax levy to a manageable 2 percent without relying too much on fund balance.
The county considered several options, including a one-time increase of 33.9 percent and a series of 9 percent increases. But the budget subcommittee recommended the current plan, which is a series of declining increases over the next five years. In 2015, the levy would increase by 10 percent, the following year it would increase by 8 percent, then 5, then it would be down to 2.
Palmer said fund balances are not a renewable source of revenue. Once the money is spent, it's gone. The tax levy, on the other hand, is renewable, he said.
As it stands now, the 2014 budget would include $94,917,464 in spending, a 0.09 percent decrease over the current year. Revenues are anticipated to grow by 1.74 percent, to $72,938,431.
Taxes would rise so much despite less spending and higher revenues because the county put $6.8 million of last year's fund balance toward reducing taxes, but it only has $3 million it can use this year, Palmer said.
"We're in a tough spot, but I think in a few years, if we plan right, we can get ourselves back," Palmer said.
The county is selling the Horace Nye Nursing Home. That takes $2.9 million of spending out of the budget. If it was still there, Palmer said the tax levy would have to increase by 32.77 percent.
He said the spending items mandated by the state have declined by $178,000, but he said those costs are still $1.56 million over costs in 2012. In 2014, the $15.76 million in mandated costs represent 83.1 percent of the proposed tax levy.
Palmer noted that taxes are still relatively low in Essex County. By the time the county gets to 2018 and its levy increase drops to 2 percent, taxpayers would pay $3.65 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which is lower than the county's $3.91 tax rate in 2004. Palmer said he knows some assessments have gone up, but he said he thinks most people would find, if they look at their 2004 tax bill, that they aren't paying much more in taxes than back then, and many are probably paying less.
Several supervisors said the county has been trying to avoid this kind of tax increase in the past, but it has become necessary.
"Sooner or later, you have to not kick the can down the road anymore," said Chesterfield town Supervisor Gerald Morrow. "We knew this was going to happen eventually."
Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey asked that Palmer's slideshow presentation be posted to the county's website so people who didn't attend the hearing can see it. Palmer said that could happen.
The board plans to hold another public hearing at 9:15 a.m. Monday, Dec. 2, on whether to override the tax cap, and they may vote on the override later the same day. Then the board plans to hold a budget workshop with the full board at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4.
Supervisors have to adopt a final budget before Dec. 20. If they don't, the tentative budget becomes the final one.