Evolving state and federal mandates are lending an air of uncertainty as Columbia County officials begin to prepare next year’s budget.
Next year’s budget likely will be flat compared to this year’s $56 million budget, with the tax digest remaining stable, said Commission Chairman Ron Cross in his annual budget address Tuesday prior to the meeting of the Management and Financial Services Committee.
Still, he said, there are three major areas of concern: the state’s new method of computing vehicle taxes; insurance changes from the federal Affordable Health Care Act; and pent-up demand for hiring new personnel.
The vehicle tax change, which Cross called “terribly confusing and terribly complex,” likely will impact the county’s personnel numbers, too.
The change, which eventually will eliminate the “birthday tax” on vehicle owners, still hasn’t been fully explained by state officials, said Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen – but she’s sure she’ll need more people on her staff to implement it.
“They’ve already told us that, because we’ve got to educate each taxpayer on their particular vehicle ... it is going to add a minimum of 10 minutes per person,” she said, cutting in half the number of customers each tag office clerk can handle each hour.
“That means things are going to back up,” she said.
In addition to the need for more personnel, county officials are uncertain about how the tax change will effect county coffers.
“It’s difficult for me to understand how this program is neutral over the long haul,” Cross said.
Officials also are uncertain about the toll new federal health care mandates will have on the county’s budget, though County Administrator Scott Johnson said there might be changes the county can make in its health insurance to avoid some of the costs.
The county’s elected officials and division directors have a deadline of March 1 to make requests for additional personnel and capital expenditures, Johnson said, and are expected to turn in their budgets by March 8. Work sessions with county commissioners will follow, with final budget approval planned for the commissioner’s first June meeting.