Town board spares many services from cuts

by Josh Lanier

HUNTERSVILLE – Most Huntersville residents will see an increase in their town tax bill, but many town services escaped cuts when commissioners approved the town’s budget Monday, June 6.

Commissioners lowered the town’s tax rate to 28.25 cents per $100 of assessed home value, but the decrease won’t compensate for the expected 18 percent average increase to property values from the countywide reassessment.

The budget vote went as expected as commissioners hashed out many of the more controversial issues in the weeks leading up to Monday’s meeting.

“We were able to not cut the items we needed and keep those necessary for the Town of Huntersville and keep the services at the levels residents expect,” Commissioner Sarah McAulay said before the vote.

Not everyone was pleased with the final result. As promised, Commissioner Charlie Jeter asked for a “revenue-neutral” budget, which would lower the tax rate to 27.5 cents per $100 assessed value and give the town roughly the same revenue it collected last year – despite revaluation pushing up assessed values.

Jeter asked to cut line items from all departments, but keep a 3 percent pay raise for town staff, extra money for the Ada Jenkins Center and money for portable radios and training for the town’s police department. To offset those costs, Jeter asked commissioners to give up their pay, which would save the town about $49,000.

The measure failed with support only from Jeter and outgoing Commissioner Ken Lucas.

“I just want to make sure all the residents are aware that this town board voted for a tax increase,” Jeter said after the meeting. “That’s what happened.”

Commissioners McAulay, Danae Caulfield and Ron Julian voted to approve the budget.

Caulfield said she also would like to lower the tax rate more, but she could not justify cutting some items, such as $40,000 to buy new playground equipment for two town parks. The board has been told the dilapidated, broken equipment could injure someone.

“If there’s a chance someone can get hurt on that old equipment, I don’t want that on my head,” Caulfield said.

The budget’s accuracy, however, hinges on estimates coming from the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor’s office. So far, the assessor’s staff estimates that total assessed value will increase about 18 percent in Huntersville, but until officials have settled the numerous homeowners who’ve appealed their new assessments, the exact amount the town will collect is unknown.

Former commissioner Charles Guignard asked the board to remember that before deciding on the budget.

“Don’t trust Mecklenburg County’s numbers,” he warned.

Guignard, who owns a number of buildings in town, including the office of the Herald Weekly, said he’s spoken with a number of property owners who’ve seen their assessed value increase much more than 18 percent. One owner said he saw one of his properties taxable value jump from $25,000 to more than $500,000.

“The average increase for my properties is 68 percent,” he told the board.

The budget includes:
• A 3 percent salary increase for town staff.
• Two new employees for the Public Works Department.
• All scheduled sidewalks projects.
• All items requested by Huntersville Police Department, including digital portable radios and digital radios for some cruisers, and the town’s share for hiring a victim’s advocate who will serve all three northern towns. (Read more on the victim’s advocate on page 5)
• Increases requested by the fire department.
• $40,000 for the Parks and Recreation Department to repair parks, facilities and equipment. The department had requested $93,500.
• Reduces by $7,500 the town’s allocation to the Arts and Science Council.
• Increases the town’s contribution to the Ada Jenkins Center, which provides social services to residents throughout north Mecklenburg, to $10,000, from $5,000.

Items requested but not included:
• iPads and software for elected officials to defray paper printing costs.
• An extra computer for the finance and administration staff.
• A study of traffic wrecks throughout the town to assist in planning and policing and an intern to help coordinate a pedestrian study.