Officials in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County are gearing up for another round of difficult budget talks—and although the economy may be on the rebound, County Manager Frank Clifton says local governments still have no more money to work with than they did five years ago.
“We’re at 2008 levels–and actually the county’s budget in 2008 (was) greater than it is today,” Clifton says. “That’s the reality: the tax base for the county is not much different today than it was in 2008.”
Still, Orange County officials say they’re hopeful they can get through another two-year budget cycle without raising property taxes.
“You have to balance (priorities) out,” says Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon, “but I think going into the budget process, we’re going to try not to raise the general property tax rate.”
And while town governments too are anticipating some difficult budget decisions, officials in Carrboro say they’re also confident they can avoid raising taxes on residents this year.
“Just kind of speaking in generalities, our goal this year is to present a no-tax-increase budget,” says Carrboro Assistant Town Manager Matt Efird. “And the preliminary budget thus far does not include a tax increase.”
But it’s a different story in Chapel Hill, where officials are dealing with a variety of unique budget challenges—and as a result, Town Manager Roger Stancil says a tax increase may be unavoidable this year.
“I apparently used up all the rabbits in my hat sooner than Frank and Matt did,” he says. “But there is a brand new library open, and we have been saying for several years that operating that library at the same level that the community’s used to–that was equivalent to a penny on the tax rate. The community decided to close the landfill and we take our garbage somewhere else–we said from the very beginning, that was (another) penny on the tax rate (in) increased cost, for the Town of Chapel Hill to do that.”
Compounding that, Stancil says, is the possibility of an additional penny tax increase from Chapel Hill Transit as well.
While different local governments are expecting to make different decisions on the question of raising taxes, officials across the board agree that the coming budget talks are going to be difficult. Especially now that municipal governments have already streamlined their operations in previous budget cycles, Chapel Hill Town Council member Laurin Easthom says there’s no such thing as an easy cut.
“The services that we have in Chapel Hill exist because somebody wanted them,” she says. “And they’re useful services. So it makes it really tough on us to decide to chip away or cut–because we know it will affect a certain group, or everyone.”
And Carrboro Alderman Lydia Lavelle says she’s particularly concerned for municipal employees, who’ve gone without pay raises for years.
“We’ve done a good job of stipends or other things the last couple years,” she says, “but as far as cost-of-living (increases)…we’ve been struggling a little bit with the implementation of a living wage.”
Municipal governments will begin their budget discussions later this spring.
Clifton, Easthom, Efird, Gordon, Lavelle, and Stancil made those comments on Thursday during WCHL’s annual Community Forum.