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Wednesday, 18 May 2016 14:26

For a change, Haywood isn’t facing a dire budget year

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haywoodHaywood County commissioners were greeted with silence at their meeting Monday night when they asked if anyone in the audience wanted to speak during a public hearing on the county’s $72 million proposed budget.

After a long pause with no takers, commissioners trucked along to the next item on their meeting agenda.

This year’s budget doesn’t call for a property tax increase, nor does it call for painful budget cuts in order to make ends meet. That’s in contrast to the recession-era budgets the county had been faced with the past several years.

The county will net an additional $550,000 next year thanks to additional sales tax revenue, a 7.7 percent increase over last year due to an uptick in consumer spending. The county will also bring in an additional $340,000 in property tax due to new construction that’s been added to property tax rolls. 

While crafting a county budget could never be called easy, the natural growth in sales and property tax gave the county a little breathing room, and as a result fewer tough choices.

“As the economy recovers, it makes it less of a struggle to provide those services that citizens expect,” County Manager Ira Dove said.

Despite the cushion afforded by growth in the sales tax and new construction added to the property tax base, the county isn’t exactly flush with a surplus. The additional revenue coming in has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

SEE ALSO: Obscure budget stats a ‘bellwether’ of economic recovery

It has to cover a slew of obligatory line items, like higher health insurance costs for employees or election costs that the county can’t do anything about.

It is also going toward projects classified as “should-do’s,” like installing ADA compliant hand-rails on the ramp leading to the courthouse or hiring an additional sheriff’s detective. In the same vein are those “have-been-putting-off-until-things-improved-and-can’t-wait-any-longer” expenses, like a major IT upgrade. 

The budget even includes projects you might call “want-to’s,” like a new animal shelter.

Paying for it all wasn’t possible based on the additional sales tax coming in and growth in the property tax base alone. The county plans to take $800,000 out of savings, known as the fund balance, to help cover it.

The county’s fund balance will still be healthy even after dipping into it, Dove said. After spending down its reserves during the recession, the county has systematically built it back up over the past few years.

This has been possible thanks to department heads spending less than their allocated budget from year to year, holding the line as much as possible in order to end the year with a surplus rather than spending everything they were allocated, Dove said.

“We have continued to apply lessons learned during the recession,” Dove said, citing a fiscal-minded mentality.

The county’s reserves have more than doubled in the past four years, making it possible to dip into the fund balance this year without making a major dent.

Here are some areas of the county budget seeing an increase:

• $290,000 for health and human services, partly because the cost of delivering services exceeds the level of reimbursement the county gets for state and federal assistance programs.

• $320,000 for public education, however, it’s not exactly a windfall for the school system, which has its own obligatory budget increases to cover, including state-mandated salary increases and additional charter school funding to pay out.

• $223,000 in additional operating expenses for Haywood Community College, in large part to help cover the staffing and operation of the new fire and rescue training center.

• $350,000 for a major IT upgrade, including an additional network technician.

• $200,000 for capital projects like new handicapped ramps and rails leading to the historic courthouse, window replace in the historic courtroom (which should pay for themselves in lower energy costs over time) and major maintenance in the justice center.

• $60,000 set aside in an economic development kitty to use as incentives in courting new industry, something commissioners had previously determined as a budget priority.

• $312,000 for the purchase of seven new law enforcement vehicles, in hopes of returning to a regular vehicle replacement schedule, which got off track during the recession.

• $220,000 to launch construction of a controversial $3.5 million animal shelter proposed to break ground in the coming year, plus $260,000 for a new emergency services base breaking ground this year. The first year costs are substantially higher than annual debt payments would be going forward, and will be offset by other debt coming off the county’s books.

• $500,000 in increased healthcare benefit costs for county employees.

• Small increases here and there run the gamut from $20,000 increase to roll out countywide property revaluations next year to an additional $26,000 in additional election costs associated with presidential year elections.

• In the public safety venue, budget increases include another bailiff to handle increase court load and another sheriff’s detective to handle increased case load.

Dove warned that commissioners may be getting off easy this year, there are some issues on the horizon that may need to be addressed next year.

For example, state lawmakers passed a law requiring a certain type of voting machines be installed, which will carry a sizeable price tag in the hundreds of thousands.

Dove also pointed out that some county services cut during the recession have never been restored to their former levels, including the Haywood County library.

“They have not returned to their pre-2008 levels. Some of the other departments have. We need to take a hard look at that for next year,” Dove said.

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