“The budget process is never simple or easy. It takes time, effort and the necessary ability to make hard choices and sometimes unpopular recommendations,” said County Manager Kevin King.
While King is recommending the property tax rate stay at 36 cents per $100 of assessed value, less revenue means cuts for some departments while other department requests for more money may go unmet.
Since the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made the decision last year to establish its own social services department, Swain’s Department of Social Services will no longer be receiving federal funding to provide child welfare services to tribal members. King said the federal funding varied, but the county probably lost more than $100,000 due to the tribe taking over child protective services. Five people in the department were affected by the decrease in case load — three were transferred to other departments and two employees were laid off.
“There wasn’t enough caseloads to warrant keeping all those folks,” King said. “It was just a necessary process because the caseload has been decreasing since last October.”
The county has also seen a reduction in the Medicaid cost settlement from the Division of Medical Assistance, which further reduced operating revenue from the county health department and Emergency Medical Services. King said state and federal reimbursement for Medicaid patients through the health department and Emergency Medical Services has always been uncertain. Reimbursement to EMS last year was down $30,000, which makes budgeting difficult from year to year.
“We just have to be mindful of that each year. It seems to be punching bag for the state government and affects counties and how they operate,” King said.
King’s budget proposal does include a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for all employees making $30,000 a year or more and a $1,000 raise for all employees making less than $30,000 a year. This increase will help set the stage for the commissioners’ plan to implement a merit-based salary schedule next year.
“This methodology for raises this year will help retain employees and be the first step in creating a retention plan that could be implemented and be based on longevity of the employees,” King said.
Commissioners are also looking to increase funding for Swain County Schools, though it isn’t as much as school officials wanted. The school board sent a letter to the county last month asking commissioners to hold a referendum to levy a new sales tax that would help the schools fund capital projects. The school board also said it needed about $500,000 to be able to maintain facilities and that the current $160,000 the county allocates for capital needs wouldn’t be enough.
King said the budget includes an additional $220,000 for the schools — $80,000 for capital projects, $100,000 for operating expenses and $40,000 to help the schools pay for school resource officers. The board is considering going after an additional sales tax for school improvements, but is waiting to see if the legislature moves forward with proposed changes to the law before deciding whether to go after a half-cent or a quarter-cent increase. A quarter-cent increase could bring in an extra $290,000 in revenue a year.
The sheriff’s office will receive some additional funding to pay detention officers more money after Sheriff Curtis Cochran urged the board to make wages more competitive during budget workshops. Cochran said he didn’t have enough employees and everyone was overworked because he wasn’t able to retain officers.
King said the average pay in the region for a detention officer is about $26,000 while Swain is paying an average of $24,000. The additional funding will get detention officers up to $25,500, which King hopes will help the department hire and retain employees.
“It just evens the playing field a bit,” he said.
Swain County commissioners will hold a public hearing regarding the 2016-17 proposed budget at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at the county administrative building.