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Split vote approves tax hike

County supervisors in Cumberland voted 3-2 to increase the real estate tax rate from 74 cents per $100 of assessed value to 78 cents near the conclusion of a contentious three-hour public hearing on the revised tax rates and potential elimination of the forestry category of the county’s land use taxation program.

District Two Supervisor and Board Chairman Lloyd Banks and District Four Supervisor David Meinhard voted against the increase.

No other tax rates were increased, and the board did not take any action regarding the proposed elimination of the forestry category of the county’s land use taxation program.

The board voted to level fund the schools at $3.8 million, but did not adopt an overall county budget.

There were failed motions offered to increase the personal property tax rate on airplanes from the current 50-cent rate.

The circuit courtroom featured a standing-room-only crowd of citizens during the hearing. Children sat on the floor, and the side door to the outside was left open so people could stand in the doorway and listen from outside.

Emotions ran high among many people who spoke against a tax increase but also among those in favor of it.

More than once, Banks asked Sheriff Darrell Hodges to escort speakers out of the courtroom during the hearing because he said they were veering off topic onto unrelated matters, such as the school budget.

At one point early on after many raised their voices in frustration over how the hearing was being conducted, Hodges took a moment to address the packed courtroom.

“Please, let’s act like ladies and gentlemen, especially for these young people who are here tonight to observe,” he said. “I know this is a heated issue, it’s passionate for everyone, but I need you to be on your best behavior, please.”

Dr. Charles Anderson spoke out against the tax increase, comparing the county’s rate to others nearby.

“We are 50 percent higher than all of our neighbors — 50 percent higher,” he said. “I don’t see how this proposal can be presented with a straight face … The only thing that’s growing in our county is our government. If our population is not growing and we have a declining median income, why should we be growing government? Why should it be getting ever larger and larger? At what point are we going to show restraint? We couldn’t show it at 45 (cents) or 55 or 65 or 70?”

District Three Supervisor Kevin Ingle later responded to multiple speakers who compared the county’s rates to others.

“One cent for Cumberland County is $75,000,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, Buckingham was so much cheaper.’ If they were to go up one cent, they’d get $142,000, so they’ve got more money to work with at 50 cents on their budget; they’ve got over a million dollars more in tax revenue than what Cumberland County gets with 78 cents.”

Dr. Roger Hatcher was among those speaking in favor of the tax increase.

“At the time of the last assessment, the board had the option to elect for equal funding or level funding,” he said. “What the board evidently did was to elect to raise the taxes (to) 74 cents instead of 78 cents. The 78 cents would have been level funding, and I would not have gotten a smaller tax bill. I’m here to support the 78 cents. I know that that disappoints a lot of people, but I think there should have been level funding. There wasn’t an increase in taxes. It was just simple level funding.”

Carol Miller said, “I have looked at the budget, and I must admit that it’s really depressing when you look at all the problems we have. I am not in favor of raising the taxes, but I do know that we need to cut expenses.”

Parrish Mort spoke against the reduction of the machinery and tools and heavy construction machinery tax rate from $3.75 per $100 of assessed value to zero, asking the board, “Has any business ever said they were going to leave because of this tax? Has any business ever said they’re not going to come to Cumberland specifically because of this tax?”

Virginia Giles expressed support for a tax increase if it meant fully funding the county’s schools.

“We need to grow the county’s greatest resources — its children, our future,” she said.

Before District Five Supervisor Parker Wheeler made a motion for level funding of the schools, Banks strongly expressed his opinion on the schools asking for more money when taking into account their overall $15 million budget, plus $2.1 million for debt service on school facilities.

“If we can’t educate children in Cumberland County for $17 million dollars, we’ve got serious problems. …”

The board will reconvene for its regular meeting on Tuesday, May 10, which will include a public hearing on keeping the machinery and tools and heavy construction machinery tax at $3.75 per $100 of assessed value and possible adoption of the county budget.