Hed: Lee supervisors eye budget, vow tax cut
By Philip Moulden
Lee County supervisors, vowing to cut the property tax rate, began reviewing 1996-97 budget requests Friday but made no final decisions.
However, it appears the board will reject a plea by the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society to join the city in taking over operations of the society-run animal shelter.
The society had asked the county to appropriate $70,620 for a new countywide animal control agency.
Supervisors said they would consider the plan only if all other municipalities in the county help fund the operation. But it appears for the coming year, the county will grant the society only $15,000, up $5,000 from last year.
"I look at it this way," District 5 Supervisor Thomas Kennedy said, referring to the new city-county jail project: "We take care of the people, they (the society) need to take care of the dogs and cats."
Hard look at increases
Supervisors also cast doubt on full funding of increases sought for Itawamba Community College's vocation-technical program and regular operations.
ICC asked for $56,166 in new vo-tech funds, a total of $506,063, and $61,585 extra in general support, raising that total to $554,894. The college asked no increases for its three other funds.
The vo-tech and support boosts would be generated by growth in the county's tax base, officials said.
But Board of Supervisors President Billy Davis indicated the board may grant only half that, contending that Lee County already pays an inflated share of ICC funding.
Supervisors also cast a hard eye on increases requested by another 20 departments and agencies.
The Lee County Library had asked for $40,526 in new funds, a 13 percent boost from last year's appropriation. However, supervisors indicated they would only match any increase approved by Tupelo's City Council, which has also been asked for a 13 percent hike.
Tax decrease imperative
Among the requests considered Friday, only the Community Development Foundation (up $30,000 from $330,000); the County Extension Office (up $7,500 from $155,000); the Regional Rehabilitation Center (up $12,000 from $280,000); and the Council of Governments (up $2,500 from $65,000) appeared to be in line to get their wishes.
"If we give everybody what they want, we know there's not going to be a tax decrease," Davis said. "Let's bring the millage down."
The others agreed, contending a tax rate reduction is imperative following a year in which the county's economic base grew at a record pace.
Growth in the past year boosted tax base values about $45 million. However, the county won't reap full benefits of that growth for at least 10 years because of tax exemptions granted to new and expanding industries.
In the coming year, one mill on the general county tax rate will generate about $369,000, up about $25,000 from the current tax year. One mill amounts to $1 in tax for each $1,000 of assessed value.
The county school system will see a bigger percentage jump, from about $128,500 per mill this year to $154,000 per mill next year. School taxes are not subject to the exemptions.
Still, County Administrator Ronnie Bell said he expects the county schools tax rate to climb about 0.25 mill, well below earlier projections of up to 0.80 mill. Under state law, the school board adopts its budget and the supervisors are compelled to set a millage rate to fund it.
Board members also instructed Bell to determine the cost of a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for county employees.
However, District 3 Supervisor Charles Duke said he opposes granting raises to salaried employees until supervisors themselves get a raise.
"We haven't had a raise in five years," Duke complained.
The state Legislature sets supervisors' pay, and has rejected bills the past two years that would have raise it.
Board members stressed that Friday's positions were tentative. They may change or shift once supervisors see the budget's bottom line and determine the effect on the tax rate.
They will resume their review Tuesday. The final budget should be completed by mid-September. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.