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Haywood budget burdened by higher costs of doing business

moneyThe give-and-take of crafting a budget is in full throttle in Haywood County, but what will be cut and what will come out on top is a close-to-the-vest affair until next week.

A draft budget will be unveiled at a county commissioners meeting Monday, and it could be in flux up until the last minute, as the county budget writers tinker with where to slot the dollars they have to work with.

Spoiler alert: the proposed budget will likely include a property tax increase of a to-be-determined amount, which is being billed as the only way to pay for raises for county employees.

Fast on the heels of the public’s first look at the county budget Monday (May 18), a public hearing will be held on Thursday (May 21).

While that’s not a lot of time to digest the proposed budget, County Manager Ira Dove said it actually gives the public more of a voice in the process than if the county waited longer to hold the hearing.

Rather than mull the budget amongst themselves over coming weeks and then have a public hearing at the end of the road — which is what most counties do — Haywood is doing the opposite.

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Front-loading the process with the public hearing means commissioners can take the feedback into account in subsequent machinations as they zero in on a final budget.

“It will provide more time for contemplation of the recommended budget and afford more opportunities for public comment,” Dove said.

Coming up with a county budget is like a mathematical juggling game. Even the most meticulous and dexterious need a little luck to keep all the balls in the air.

The county can usually count on a little wiggle room in the budget year over year, thanks to upticks in sales tax revenue and new construction that adds to the property tax rolls.

Dove roughly estimated that there would be an additional $1.8 million in the budget this coming year to work with, but warned commissioners it would quickly be used up. 

“You have a lot of needs pressing on that,” Dove said during preliminary budget work shop in late-April.

For example, foster care costs are rising as more kids end up in foster care. Deaths from drug overdoses mean a bigger tab for the county medical examiner. More mental health and substance abuse patients have led to overtime pay for deputies to transport them to mental health facilities.

And there’s more:

• The cost of health insurance benefits for county employees climbs every year — the county’s bill for the employee health insurance plan may rise by half a million dollars this coming year, according to County Finance Director Julie Davis.

• Medical costs for jail inmates will likely rise yet again. Technically, it’s impossible to predict what medical bills the county will be stuck with for its jail inmates, but it’s required to cover health care costs for inmates.

Instead of keeping fingers crossed that they won’t rise, and then having to dig up the dough when they inevitably do, this year Dove bit the bullet and built in higher jail medical costs out of the gate.

“It is in your realistic spending patterns over the past three or more years,” Dove said.

• The county also has to fork out more in retirement pay every year and has swallowed that reality, too, budgeting a bigger line item for retirement benefits at the outset.

“You are just fooling yourself if you didn’t budget for that when you know it is going to be there to pay,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

• The county has delayed replacing vehicles on a regular schedule, and now has a hole to dig out of.

“I would say drop a motor in and keep plugging along, but we have kicked the can so far down the road on vehicles, that I don’t see that working,” Dove said.

But instead of merely resuming the replacement schedule — phasing out a certain number of older vehicles each year with new ones — there’s now catch-up involved. That catch-up factor has become a universal challenge for towns and counties as they climb out of the recession-era budget mindset.

Overall, the county is no longer reeling from budget shortfalls that dominated the budget discussion in recent years. 

Budget cuts to the school system and community college have been restored, for example. And the county is in the planning stages for two building projects: a new animal shelter and a new emergency services hub with equipment bays.

But some of the austere budget measures imposed during the recession are still in place.

Library hours were cut during the recession, for example, and haven’t been restored. The Canton library is closed Saturdays and the Waynesville library is closed Sundays — and neither have night hours anymore, despite 33,000 library cards holders.

The county also cut contributions to nonprofits during the recession, but has largely not restored those.

“We tried to do the right thing and I think we did when the economy tanked,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said. “We cut our workforce by more than 50 people and kept flat budgets and put a lot of things off, but you can’t continue to do that indefinitely. Right now we are operating at 2008 levels. That is not sustainable.”

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