“I think the town’s single biggest accomplishment is building a fiscally responsible balanced budget that doesn’t take from fund balance,” Town Manager Paige Dowling told board members as they began their Jan. 26 work session. “I think that’s the biggest thing the board accomplished over the year and the thing you’ll need to be the most proud of.”
In 2016, the board voted to increase the town’s property tax rate from 30 cents per $100 of value to 42.5 cents. Property values were expected to fall as the area’s first post-recession property revaluation went into effect, and even before the revaluation the town had found itself unable to balance the budget with existing revenue, sometimes finding itself forced to take from savings to cover the bills.
Issues with Harris Regional Hospital’s tax payments also caused the board heartburn, as the hospital disputed its originally appraised value and stated that it wouldn’t pay any taxes until the matter was settled. At the time, board members feared that the issue could drag on into the next fiscal year, wreaking havoc on the closely cut budget.
The hospital wound up settling the issue in October, paying taxes on a $23.7 million value rather than the originally appraised $42.3 million. The hospital had originally appealed the value at $13 million with the Jackson County Board of Adjustments amending its appraisal to $27.2 million after conducting a closer inspection of the property.
While board members aren’t grappling with the possibility of a tax increase this year, they do have plenty of other decisions to make. Department heads and board members put their heads together to list out the needs and wants facing the town this year so that they can start deciding what will get funded now and what will have to wait for a later year.
“We look at the needs first, and then we go to the wants,” Dowling said. “Unfortunately, in a small town with a budget our size that may mean that we get very few wants.”
Sylva’s list of needs
The list of needs includes about $540,000 of expenditures on top of the routine expenses of running a town, such as salaries and utilities and insurance. The biggest-ticket items are a $120,000 resurfacing of Ridgeway Street and $120,000 to renovate the pool.
The town also wants to spend about $5,600 on a salary study to determine whether Sylva is paying its employees competitive wages and estimates resulting wage adjustments would cost the town $20,000 or more.
“We need to be paying people comparable to what our adjacent towns are paying,” Dowling said. “The other part of that is when we’re so behind on it we’re not sure how to catch it up.”
“I think this is worth the cost,” said Commissioner David Nestler. “I want to be proud of what we pay our employees, and when we lose people to surrounding areas, it hurts.”
The police department will also require some significant investment over the next budget year. The department listed among its needs replacements for four in-car cameras and one police vehicle, changing one part-time position to a full-time position and purchase of a new dispatch and GPS system.
The dispatch/GPS system will be a major boon to the department, said Assistant Police Chief Tammy Hooper, who will be promoted to chief following the retirement of Chief Davis Woodard.
Pulling information from GPS, she said, “it can tell you exactly what the officer is doing. Instead of talking to us over the radio and telling us to go somewhere, it’s basically going to be on the computer. It holds us accountable and it tells us exactly where the patrol car is.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is also going with this new system, Hooper said, which steps up the urgency for Sylva to adopt it as well. If Sylva didn’t, the two law enforcement agencies would be using completely different dispatch systems and communication would be difficult.
The town also has some less tangible needs to fund. Every year, a town should put away some money for post-retirement benefits so that when an employee chooses to retire, the town isn’t scrambling for money to pay out retirement benefits. But one outcome of last year’s budgeting uncertainty was that the town was not able to contribute to the post-retirement fund, so now it’s playing catch-up. With eight people eligible for retirement between now and the 2022-23 fiscal year, Dowling’s plan calls for the town to budget $150,000 per year for the next six years to catch up.
The wish list
Those are the needs, but the board also has a long list of projects it would like to see come to fruition — and all of those cost money. To help sort out priorities, Dowling gave each board member a sheet of 12 stickers to place next to the projects most important to them. Projects that gathered the most enthusiasm included adding a concession stand and bathroom to Bridge Park, contributing to the newly established public art fund, extending the grassy area at Bridge Park, developing a trail plan for Pinnacle Park and conducting an ordinance study on density to update the land use map.
Dowling’s challenge will be to build a budget that addresses all the town’s needs while using the remaining funds as wisely as possible to take care of its wants. She’ll prioritize projects based on board member interest and project cost. For instance, if the No. 1 priority were too expensive to fit within the budget, she’d move on down the list until she found a project cheap enough to fit.
Department heads are currently working to firm up the cost estimates for their various needs in the year ahead, and ahead of the board’s March 9 budget work session Dowling will put together information on the town’s likely revenues and expenditures for the coming year.
“March 9 is really to talk about prioritizing needs and looking at budget issues and what our main objectives need to be in building the budget this year,” Dowling said.