Haywood County Manager Ira Dove presented his revenue-neutral preliminary budget to commissioners and members of the public May 15. It proposes to increase funding to Haywood County Schools and maintain current levels of public services while still providing for economic development activity.
But all that comes at a price — an almost 2-cent increase in the county’s current 56.61 cents per $100 assessed property value rate, which accounts for 54 percent of the county’s overall revenue.
“These numbers are driven by the needs of your county,” Dove told commissioners during the meeting.
Dove’s presentation is but the first real public discussion of the year’s proposed budget, and meetings on June 1, 5 and 19 will all allow for citizen comment and commissioner questions, so everything and anything about the proposed budget could change.
But for now, the proposed budget stands at $79,511,717 including a 5.8 percent increase in general fund expenditures over 2016’s $75,311,745 beginning budget.
Like the towns of Canton and Maggie Valley, Haywood County itself will have to deal with a 2016 revaluation that sucked more than $167 million in taxable value off the county’s ledger, resulting in the loss of about $1 million in tax revenue.
That level of revenue weighed against that level of proposed expenses would necessitate a tax rate increase to 58.5 cents per $100, as well as $2.15 million in fund balance being used to balance the budget.
The county’s fund balance remains healthy, around 27 percent in the current budget year. North Carolina’s Local Government Commission suggests at least 8 percent, equal to about a month’s worth of expenses, and county policy calls for 11 percent.
The $2.15 million appropriation this year would reduce fund balance by about 10 percent, leaving it around 23 percent of yearly expenditures, or about three months worth.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the county hasn’t touched the fund balance since around 2008.
Republican Commissioner Brandon Rogers — probably the most fiscally conservative member of the board — said he’d be comfortable with a fund balance of between 12 and 16 percent.
The biggest budget culprits on the spending side are an unfunded state mandate to purchase new voting machines ($890,000), a change in the school funding formula ($485,209) and more than $1.3 million for public safety, all of which adds up to $2.6 million in new spending.
Proposed spending increases of varying sizes in General Government, Central Services, Economic Development and Health and Human Services push that number even higher.
The County’s Central Services budget will remain relatively flat, and the Health and Human Services budget will see small growth if two new workers are added.
Education would also see modest but much-needed increases, including $485,209 to Haywood County Schools; HCS can use the money for anything except capital outlays. A 6.2-percent increase in funding ($177,916) is also recommended for Haywood Community College.
Cultural and Recreation spending may see a 9 percent increase overall due to a proposed $25,000 contribution to the town of Canton’s municipal pool project and $30,000 to increase slightly library hours.
But the biggest increases would make Dove’s 2017-18 offering truly a “public safety budget.”
Haywood County’s Emergency Services department is beginning to reach peak capacity in some areas, so $46,000 is proposed for additional part-time wages.
In the county’s 911 communications center, call volumes soared from 106,261 in 2014 to 140,367 in 2016, resulting in Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher’s request for two additional staff at $86,906. In February, Christopher called the staffing level “a direct liability to our county” if call pace remains unchanged.
Under the proposed budget, the sheriff’s office would also get new Tasers ($70,000) replacement dash cams and, for the first time, body cams ($67,304).
In 2016, detention officers drove over 271,216 miles, up 85,000 from 2015; a detention van ($42,500) as well as a lieutenant ($68,006) would help ease personnel and vehicular strain.
Easing the strain on ambulatory personnel during the movement of patients would represent the largest public safety increase, at $480,000 to remount three ambulances with safety lifts. Currently, only one is available.
Economic and Physical Development
Sales tax revenue is projected to increase 6.71 percent in the coming year; the county expects to collect almost $15 million, up from just $10 million during the depths of the Great Recession in 2010, and only just now eclipsing the nearly $14 million collected in 2007-08.
Although the recession apparently wiped out a decade’s worth of sales tax growth, Dove said that the increase was “another sign” that Haywood is recovering.
Part of that recovery has been through the efforts of the Haywood Economic Development Council and the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, which the county will continue to fund at $223,059, including an additional $60,000 for an EDC last-mile broadband study.
Probably the biggest surprise — and sting — in the budget is in the General Government category; in addition to a $275,000 increase in insurance costs and a $23,000 increase in retiree health insurance, $890,000 is slated for new voting machines.
“Just to be clear, we’ve about kicked that situation down the road about as far as we can,” said Commissioner Michael Sorrells during the meeting.
Required by state law to be implemented by Sept. 1, 2019, the new machines need to be inspected and tested before they can be used; based on the current schedule of upcoming elections, that needs to happen now, which is why Haywood County Board of Elections Director Robbie Inman asked for them in February.
At the conclusion of Dove’s presentation, commissioners had few real questions; they’d been involved with identifying the goals of the budget since last winter, and four of the five had worked on the previous year’s budget as well.
Things change over that time, however, and things sometimes get left out of the initial budget; one such may be a cost of living increase for county employees.
Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said during the meeting he’d like to see one and Sorrells agreed.
Whether that — or anything else mentioned during Dove’s presentation — ends up in the final budget this year is still up in the air, but as commissioners in the meeting now know, they’ll have to ask some hard questions in the coming weeks.
“I don’t like it at all,” said Rogers, who has repeatedly said he wants to raise taxes “only as a last resort, once all other avenues have been exhausted.”
Rogers said he will sit down and go through the budget, line by line, trying to identify things that are truly needed — like the increases in 911 call center staffing — while eliminating things that aren’t, in hopes of staving off a tax increase.
Kirkpatrick was circumspect in his analysis of the budget, but asked probably the hardest question of them all.
“To me,” he said, “it’s about what kind of county do we want to live in?’”