Franklin County supervisors plan to keep tax rates flat for now, but how long can that last?

Last spring, Franklin County adopted a real-estate tax increase of 6 cents per $100 of assessed value and 10 cents for personal property taxes. However, with little economic development in the county and expenses ever-growing, it appears the current tax rates might be short-lived.

The county partially funds the school district, which takes up more than half the county’s budget. The district is faced with declining enrollment and higher expenses. It would seem like a decline in enrollment would mean fewer expenses. But that isn’t the case. Teachers still have to be paid, the buildings still have to be heated and lit and meals still have to be served. Busing, while not required by law, is basically a necessity in a county like Franklin given its size, and students from all ends of the county need to get to one central middle school and high school. The schools receive less money from the state because those funds are based on enrollment. So fewer students, means less state money.

Who makes up the difference? Local taxpayers. The school budget, as expected to be presented to county supervisors March 19, totals slightly less than $91 million.

The school district hopes to increase total pay 3.2 percent, which would give all employees a step increase, and also provide a 1-percent bonus to employees at the top of the salary scale. During a county budget presentation March 5, Assistant County Administrator Chris Whitlow said increasing pay for county employees is a top priority, however no figure was presented.

Operating costs were budgeted to increase $3.2 million across county departments. One of the biggest challenges the county faces is a huge drop in volunteer paramedics and firefighters, according to Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tim Tatum. He said the number of county volunteer paramedics has dropped from 80 to 41 in recent years, causing a need to create paid positions. While the problem with firefighters isn’t as drastic now, he added it could become a problem down the road. The growth of the county also has stalled in comparison to the progress the area was seeing in the last 20 years. Officials have taken steps to right the ship by moving forward with the Summit View Business Park and trying to draw companies in to provide jobs. Tatum said around 40 percent of the county’s working residents work outside the county, and people are moving out of the county for work elsewhere.

Also, during the economic boom of the 1990s, the county collected new revenue from housing and commercial growth, but as that growth has plateaued so has the increase in funds. What Franklin County needs is to experience that boom again and prepare for another plateau via a rainy-day fund or savings. In this climate, it’s nearly impossible to save money. Infrastructure and jobs are needed, perhaps even some by the county itself – such as for paramedics. All that costs money.

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