Harnett County Manager Paula Stewart presented her final budget on Monday and in doing so painted a troubling picture of the area’s future.
Taking the possibility of another global pandemic out of the equation, Stewart told the Harnett County Board of Commissioners that unabated growth and a lack of economic development will continue to strain services and crowd schools. While sales tax revenues increased last fiscal year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the county experienced just 2% growth with approximately half of that revenue going to Harnett County Schools. The county added approximately 1,000 homes, which added to the tax base, but Stewart said the new construction hasn’t kept up with cost or demand.
“Residential development generally does not pay for itself and the type of residential development Harnett County is experiencing certainly does not,” Stewart said. “Our ability to keep up with growing demands for services has actually declined during our recovery from the Great Recession (in 2008).”
From strictly a numbers perspective, Stewart said Harnett County operates in the red on a per-person basis. Counties similar in size reported an average of $763 in per person property tax revenue compared to $495 in Harnett County.
Stewart said Harnett County, based on total revenues per capita, has $230 less per person to work with.
“This really illustrates the funding challenges we face,” said Stewart. “Even without the challenges of a global pandemic Harnett County faces future problems in keeping up with service demands. Our population has grown most rapidly in the unincorporated areas of the county where we do not have towns to provide services, even though new residents in these areas often expect these types of public amenities. Meanwhile, our revenues are just not keeping up.”
Harnett County’s beauty could also be working against it as residential development requires funding. Stewart said Harnett County ranked 95th out of 100 counties in property values per capita and future planners will face challenges when it comes to capital projects until structural problems concerning revenues are addressed.
“The average new home built in the county barely pays enough in taxes to fund the cost of educating one student, let alone all the other county services that are required,” Stewart said. “We do not believe this situation is sustainable.”
Stewart recommended the county increase funding in economic development and continue looking for ways to expand the commercial and industrial tax base.
“I do appreciate you bringing back to attention what we already know: we are struggling to be a bedroom county for surrounding counties,” Commissioner Chairman W. Brooks Matthews said. “Over 60% of our population leaves daily to go to another county to work.”
Stewart also feared the county risked losing its best employees due to below average pay when compared to surrounding municipalities.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.