Lowndes County supervisors on Wednesday approved a Fiscal Year 2022 budget that funded employee pay raises without increasing taxes.
The budget projects a $180,190 surplus for the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and leaves the county’s operating millage rate at 41.26. The board reversed course last-minute from a planned tax increase of .74 mills that would have created a budget surplus of $735,000.
A mill is used to measure taxes paid on real property, personal property and vehicle tags. The proposed increase would have cost the taxpayer an extra $7.40 cents for every $100,000 of assessed property value.
“I’m glad we decided we didn’t need to do that,” District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders said of the proposed tax increase after the meeting.
Despite the flat tax, the budget still provides $548,000 for across-the-board raises for full-time employees, County Administrator Jay Fisher said.
That includes 75 cents per hour for hourly workers and an increase of between $2,000 and $5,000 annually for salaried positions.
The raises also help move the county closer to the goal of all its full-time employees being paid at least $13 per hour, Fisher said.
Supervisors advertised the potential tax increase to fund employee raises. After a motion to approve the budget with the tax increase, Sanders announced he would vote against it on the grounds it was an unnecessary burden to the taxpayers.
“The budget that is presented leaves a ($735,000) reserve,” Sanders said. “… There’s no reason in the world for us to raise taxes when we don’t need it.”
Sanders said he supports the employee raises in the budget but argued it was wrong to use them as “an excuse” for a tax increase that wasn’t needed to fund them.
At Board President Trip Hairston’s request, Sanders offered a substitute motion to pass the budget without a tax increase, which Hairston seconded. It passed 4-0 with District 5’s Leroy Brooks abstaining.
“If we can make this budget work without a tax increase, then I’m for that,” Hairston said.
Brooks told The Dispatch after the meeting his abstention was more a “show of moral support” for Fisher and Chief Financial Officer Lloyd Gray, who had prepared the budget. He also expressed concern that such a small surplus didn’t leave enough room for unanticipated expenses.
“I’m not for a tax increase, but I want to make sure we can deal with things that can and do happen,” Brooks said. “We’re self-insured, for example. One or two people can throw that whole thing off-kilter. … I hope everything flows well and there are no unanticipated situations.”
Fisher reported to the board at its Aug. 31 budget hearing that a tax increase would likely be necessary to fund raises, especially with payments toward a $5 million loan for a road paving program set to begin in Fiscal Year 2022. The loan will be repaid at a little more than $1 million per year over five years with internet sales tax revenue.
However, Fisher said since the county just approved bids for those projects in August and hasn’t yet borrowed the money, the first payment can be delayed until Fiscal Year 2023. That, along with other smaller budget adjustments, supplied the money for the raises without need of a tax increase.
Still, he presented the budget Wednesday with the tax increase and larger surplus to provide more cushion, particularly for unexpected health insurance costs.
As a “self-insured” entity, Fisher said, the county pays a lower insurance premium but shoulders a much higher portion of employee medical expenses than one that is “fully insured.” Those costs “fluctuate wildly” as a result, and Fiscal Year 2021 has been a particularly bad year because of COVID-19, he said.
“We have used (budget) surpluses in the past to shore up our self-funded insurance,” he said.
In other business, the board:
■ dispensed with a Nov. 2, 2021, election for county prosecutor and appointed William Starks — the only candidate who qualified — to fill the remainder of the term through 2023. Starks had been serving as interim prosecutor since Steve Wallace’s death in May;
■ approved an interlocal agreement to allow the city of Starkville to reserve two beds in the Lowndes County Juvenile Detention Center for $125 per bed per day pending approval by the Attorney General’s Office;
■ authorized the sale of a building on Wilcutt Road, which has been used for emergency management equipment storage, for the appraised value of $100,000 to Frank Adams; and
■ rejected two bids for building concession stands and restrooms at the Lowndes County Horse Park and expressed intent to discuss rebidding the project in early 2022.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.