Haywood considers cutting jobs, raising taxesWritten by Julia Merchant
Tight times in Haywood County have forced commissioners to consider significant job cuts and a tax increase in an attempt to make up for the county’s falling revenues.
The county has $72.5 million in requests for the 2009-2010 fiscal year but just $62 million in projected revenues.
At a budget workshop May 14, County Manager David Cotton told commissioners he was recommending cuts of up to 35 positions to balance the county’s budget, which must be adopted by June 30. Cotton called the recommendation “agonizing.”
Cotton said he hopes some of the reduction of force will be done voluntarily through expanded early retirement incentives and employees who take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, equivalent to a 36-hour work week.
Departments that have seen a slowdown in work due to the economy will likely be among the first hit by layoffs.
“Some of the departments still are not seeing the demand for service,” Cotton said.
One of the most significant slowdowns has impacted the building inspections department. Building permits were down 50 percent in recent months, Cotton said.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry that see lots of positions the county ramped up for that aren’t as busy as they used to be,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns a land surveying company. “Unfortunately, because of the national and state economy, we just don’t have the workload we used to have.”
Commissioner Mark Swanger said the job cuts were tough, but necessary.
“I don’t think anybody likes the idea of people losing their jobs,” Swanger said. “It’s just a fact that if the demand for services decreases and there’s no near term expectation that that service demand will recover, we’re faced with a choice.”
Cotton also recommended that employee benefits like pay increases, the county’s 401K match, and the annual Christmas bonus be eliminated or scaled back.
Hike taxes, gain revenue
Commissioners are considering a property tax increase to help balance the budget. Cotton recommended hiking the tax rate between 1.3 and 2.3 cents per $100 of valuation.
The more property taxes are raised, the fewer job cuts county employees will face. Raise the rate by 2.3 cents, and the county could cut the minimum of 25 positions. If the rate is raised by 1.3 cents, job cuts could total in the mid-30s.
Commissioners debated how much of an increase they supported, and finally proposed one in the middle — 1.7 cents.
A wave of public opposition to raising taxes has confronted commissioners at recent meetings, and the board seemed well aware of the delicate balance necessary in making the decision.
“There’s a lot of anxiety out in the community,” Swanger said. “Between 1.3 cents and 2.3 cents isn’t a lot, but it might be the difference between grudging acceptance of a tax increase and revolt. I do sense a level of anxiety and anger out there that I haven’t experienced before. There’s a point where if we go beyond that point, I think we’d regret it.”
Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said despite the opposition to a tax increase, the county was left with little choice.
“Nobody on this board wants to raise taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also have a civic and fiduciary responsibility to this county to run it properly and provide for our citizens. That is why we’ve made the decision that we’ve made.”
Schools, nonprofits slashed
Other areas will also see a big reduction in county funding under the proposed budget, such as the school system. Haywood County Schools requested $775,000 from the county for capital projects; Cotton recommended half that amount. Haywood Community College requested $500,000 for capital projects, but would be awarded just $165,000 under the proposed budget.
Nonprofits are also taking a serious hit, which Cotton called, “one of the tougher decisions.”
“The budget essentially eliminates all funding to non-mandated nonprofits,” Cotton said.
The Haywood County Fairgrounds, the Good Samaritan Clinic, Folkmoot USA and the Haywood County Arts Council are among the organizations that won’t receive funding in the coming budget year.