Forsyth County Manager Dudley Watts (left) talks pay with commissioners (l-r) Dave Plyler, Everette Witherspoon, Richard Linville, Bill Whiteheart and Walter Marshall.
The Forsyth County budget is expected to take a $11.4 million revenue hit in two years following the scheduled 2014 tax revaluation, which is anticipated to show a 12-percent depreciation in aggregate property values.
Even without the revaluation, the county is anticipating revenue shortfalls of $7.5 million and $8.7 million over the next two years respectively even as law enforcement and social services plead for more funding to keep up with needs.
County Manager Dudley Watts told the seven members of the county commission during a work session yesterday that if they should start preparing now for the impact of the 2014 revaluation and consider phasing in service cuts, a tax increase or a combination of the two.
“I asked them today: If you think we’re not going to adjust that rate up for revenue neutrality, let’s talk about that this year,” he said. “I don’t want to take people on a roller-coaster ride.”
He added that considering that property values have depreciated overall, most taxpayers would not see their tax bills go up under a revenue-neutral approach in which the rate increased. But tax bills for properties that have appreciated or at least held their values would potentially leave their owners with sticker shock. Tax Assessor Collector John Burgiss said it’s too early too tell which categories of properties, if any, have appreciated. For example, in addition to residential properties, the county also taxes commercial properties, warehouses and apartment complexes. And changes in value are likely to vary by location. Burgiss said the county will have a better sense of that by fall.
At-large Commissioner Bill Whiteheart, a Republican, suggesting assessing the cost of youth detention services to see if the county could save money. Forsyth, along with Guilford and Durham, is one of three counties across the state that maintains youth detention facilities, although the state picks up half of the cost.
“I think I can look at you in the eyes on the operational side and say it’s a value, beyond having [children] close to moms and daddies, and aunts and uncles,” Watts said.
As the county faces declining revenues, demand for social services is escalating, the sheriff’s office is looking to improve response times and county employees are angling for raises.
Sheriff Bill Schatzman is requesting that the county fund 15 additional deputy positions. Forsyth County has slightly fewer patrol officers per thousand people than comparable urban counties such as Guilford and Wake, but more than rural neighbors Davie, Yadkin and Surry.
“We send one car to an event the Winston-Salem Police Department would send five cars to, and it takes us twice as long to get there,” Schatzman said. “That’s a function of us patrolling rural areas and patrolling the donut rather than the donut hole. But it does create a safety concern for citizens and staff.”
Chief Deputy Brad Stanley said a typical response time might be 15 minutes for the first car and 25 minutes for backup, warning that slow response times could endanger both officers and citizens if a deputy has to deal with a hostile or emotionally disturbed subject. The department is staffed with eight deputies on patrol during any given shift.
Commissioner Debra Conrad, a Republican who represents District 2, noted a significant number of calls for service inside the corporate limits of Winston-Salem. A map prepared by the county shows that many of the service calls occurred on Business 40 and US Highway 52, and the sheriff said they reflect deputies responding to situations encountered in transit from downtown Winston-Salem to outlying areas.
Conrad asked if it would make sense to merge municipal police departments and the sheriff’s office. Stats compiled by the county indicate that there is 1.6 patrol officers in Winston-Salem and 1.9 patrol officer in Kernersville per 1,000 people, compared to less than 1 patrol officer per 1,000 people in the unincorporated areas served by the sheriff’s office.
Commissioner Walter Marshall, a Democrat who represents District 1, noted that consolidating law enforcement functions would either require the county to come up to the service levels of Winston-Salem and Kernersville, or the two municipalities to come down the level of the county, negating any possible cost savings.
“We’re not willing to fund it to an adequate level now,” he said, “so I don’t think we’re ready for a discussion about consolidation.”
Schatzman acknowledged that his request for increased staffing inevitably translates into a cost to taxpayers.
“Taxation is a bitter pill and it leaves a lousy taste in your mouth,” he said. “We are taxed to death, but it is the price of civilization, as I was philosophically.”
“Are you a Democrat, sir?” asked Commissioner Everette Witherspoon, a Democrat in District 1.
Schatzman responded, “If you’re going to live in my cave, you better bring six rocks.”
Social Services Director Joe Raymond jested as he began his pitch to the commissioners for more funding.
“I appreciate following the sheriff,” he said. “All I would like to say is that if he gets a helicopter, I want a motorcycle.”
Raymond said the county’s caseload for recipients of food nutrition assistance has nearly doubled since January 2008, while child-family Medicaid caseloads have bulged 36 percent and adult Medicaid caseloads have increased 36 percent.
“I’m not quite sure why the roof hasn’t blown off our building,” he said.
“We are seeing more violence… more murder-suicides, more severe child abuse,” Raymond said. “This is a countrywide phenomenon. It’s well established through studies that there is a direct correlation between economic distress and violence in families.”
John Dean, the county human resources director, couched his appeal for better compensation both arguments for competitiveness and sensitivity to employees’ financial needs. He recommended a 5 percent county contribution to employees’ retirement accounts, to match the benefit level, in neighboring Guilford County, and an increase in tuition reimbursements from $400 to $800 to give employees better opportunities for advancement.
“When you work in the public sector it’s a given that you can’t make as much as the private sector,” Dean said. “Traditionally, what made up for that was that government offered better benefits. We’re hearing about some really bad situations with employees where maybe their spouse lost their job and unemployment insurance has run out. So compensation has kind moved up as a priority for them.”
Witherspoon noted that the county will have to consider revenue increases — typically obtained by raising the tax rate — or cut services.
“Law enforcement is under-funded when it comes to staffing,” he said. “DSS is under-funded when it comes to staffing. EMS is under-funded when it comes to staffing. Public health is under-funded when it comes to staffing. Our employees aren’t adequately compensated…. We brag about our fiscal responsibility and our low tax rate and that’s good, but there’s a flip side to that coin: That’s low service levels.”
Gloria Whisenhunt, a Republican in District 2, said adjusting to the revenue impact of the tax revaluation will be one of the most significant decisions made by the commission since she started serving on the board in 1996.
“A reduction in values is going to happen,” Watts said. “Ain’t nothing’s going to change between now and March that’s going to make it dramatically better.”
The conservative majority on the Republican-controlled board might balk at raising taxes, even to maintain neutral revenue.
“I’m very troubled,” Whisenhunt said after the work session. “It’s evident that people’s home values are going to go down…. I want to see the numbers of how deeply we would have to cut the schools and the sheriff’s office, but it is not a good time to raise taxes.”