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Wednesday, 07 June 2017 14:20

Public ignores county budget process

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Revenues are down, costs are up and local conservative factions haven’t been silent in their criticism of the Democratic-majority Haywood County Board of Commissioners, which is about to approve a budget utilizing fund balance for the first time in around a decade.

But through this year’s budget process so far, not a single taxpayer has yet uttered a syllable. 

“I was surprised,” said Commissioner Brandon Rogers, who is working through his first budget since being elected to the board. 

Just a handful of onlookers, mostly county employees like Sheriff Greg Christopher, turned up for the county’s budget public hearing June 1 — a meeting specially called to invite public input on the proposed $79.5 million 2017-18 fiscal year budget. 

The budget was first presented to the public May 15 during an hour-long presentation by County Manager Ira Dove; it includes a 5.8 percent increase in general fund expenditures over 2016 and will appropriate $2.15 million in fund balance to adjust for unexpected one-time costs like new state-mandated voting machines as well as a countywide property revaluation conducted earlier this year that proved disappointing.

Between May 15 and May 31, Executive Assistant to the County Manager Candace Way said that she’d received neither an email nor a phone call from the public about the budget prior to the June 1 meeting, so it wasn’t really a surprise when no one signed up to speak at the meeting, either. 

“Most of the time, people come when something affects them,” said Rogers’ fellow Republican on the board, Commissioner Kevin Ensley. 

Ensley — who has served multiple and non-consecutive terms on the commission for well over a decade — said he wasn’t nervous that no one seemed to be that interested. 

“I hope it’s because they think we’re doing a good job,” he said. 

Rogers is still somewhat peeved at the amount of fund balance the county wants to appropriate; it may be counterintuitive for a fiscal conservative like Rogers, but he actually wants to spend more of the county’s fund balance, which will drop from about 27 percent to about 23 percent if the budget is adopted as it now stands. 

Rogers said May 16 he’d be comfortable seeing that number drop to 12 to 16 percent. 

The county’s fund balance is a savings account of sorts, meant for disasters or downturns. The state Local Government Commission mandates 8 percent, a local ordinance demands 11 and financial gurus recommend at least 16 percent, but conservatives don’t love the idea of the county hoarding surplus revenue that could be used to pay down debt, or not levied as a tax at all. 

“I talked with Ira [Dove] and Julie [Davis, Haywood County finance department director] and they’re not really comfortable bringing it that far down,” Rogers said. “I respect their judgment, but would still like to see more.”

Rogers said he’s received a number of comments from customers at his Canton auto repair shop, since his customers know he’s a captive audience while they’re there, but that complaints have been few and far between. 

“I think a lot of people understand that with the recent revaluation, things are tighter,” Rogers said. 

Ensley agreed, saying that much of the spending in the budget is for things people want, like retrofitted ambulances and staffing increases in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. 

One remaining point of contention seems to be Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick’s insistence on a cost-of-living raise for county employees, which would result in an additional $180,000 line item and necessitate a tax increase of a penny or two unless it’s paid for from fund balance. 

The final deadline to pass the budget per North Carolina law is July 1; the Haywood County Board of Commissioners will meet one more time before then, at 5:30 p.m. on June 19.

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