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Jackson budget focuses on school spending, savings and personnel

jacksonJackson County residents will avoid a tax hike for one more year, if commissioners choose to adopt the proposed budget for 2015-16.

“If [it’s] not the lowest tax rate in the state for [fiscal year 2015-16], it’s certainly going to be one of the lowest,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said of Jackson County. “At the same time, we acknowledge with the reval coming next year, that tax rate almost has to go up. I don’t see any way around it.”

Next year, property taxes will, for the first time, be based on post-recession values, meaning that the county will likely hike the tax rate to keep its total revenue the same.

But for now, Jackson has a $61 million budget that’s largely composed of revenues from its 28 cents per $100 property tax. To ready itself for the impending revaluation, Wooten said, the county seeks to position itself “with the base in place” so that next year won’t require any significant increases or huge capital expenditures. 

“We’re not trying to finance any kind of projects to take on any new debt load,” Chairman Brian McMahan said. “In fact, we’ll be trying to pay off some of our debt service to put us in a position where we’ll be able to absorb some of the downturn in values across the county.”

That doesn’t mean that the 2015-16 budget doesn’t include any capital projects, however. It proposes $2.37 million for Jackson County Public Schools, whose buildings are in need of some serious maintenance and repair projects. Superintendent Mike Murray had requested $4.29 million for the first phase of a five-year plan to replace roofs and HVAC systems, upgrade technology and improve athletic facilities. Though the county opted to fund only about half of that request, the capital spending represents “a pretty significant amount,” Wooten said, and “shows that [commissioners] are committed to working with the school board.”

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“There’s no reason why that couldn’t be a 6-year or 7-year capital improvement plan,” agreed Commissioner Vicki Greene, adding that she believes the budget contains enough funding for the schools to meet their most pressing capital needs. 

Wooten also pointed to the recommended budget for Southwestern Community College as evidence of the county’s commitment to education — the proposed budget would have the county kick in $1.9 million for operations and $311,000 for capital expenditures. That’s a slight increase over operations funding from 2014-15, which was a nearly $300,000 increase over 2013-14. And the recommended capital amount is more than twice the amount budgeted for either year. 

The budget also includes some significant increases in personnel, proposing 9.5 additional positions. Three of those positions will go to the Sheriff’s Department and are associated with the county’s required conversion to a single-entrance justice center. Also included are 1.5 new positions in the Planning Department, a county attorney position should commissioners decide to change from hiring a contract attorney to a full-time staffer, two half-time positions for the Green Energy Park and half-time positions for a community garden manager, social worker and Cashiers housekeeper. 

In addition, county employees will receive a 2- percent raise and 2.5 days of bonus leave. 

Though these expenses will be recurring every year, the county can afford them, Wooten said. 

“We have not added positions unless they were really needed in the operations,” he said. “We haven’t added positions just for the sake of adding positions.”

The proposed budget would up Jackson’s total employee count to 397. That’s a lot higher than 10 years ago, when it sat at 327, but in line with the last eight years, when it wavered between a high of 400 in 2010-11 and a low of 376 in 2012-13.

In addition, Wooten said, the county is seeing the benefits of increased revenue from sales tax as spending picks back up. Sales tax in Jackson County is 6.75 percent, with 4.75 percent going back to the state and the county getting the remaining 2 percent. This year, sales tax revenues accounted for 15.5 percent of the total budget, and projections for the coming months are looking good. 

That, combined with the county’s recent refinancing of its debt at significantly lower interest rates, has freed up some extra money for operations. 

“I think the reduction in debt service and the increase in sales tax has allowed us to address the needs where we need to address them but not call upon the tax rate,” Wooten said. 

He’s hoping all will go well at the June 4 budget hearing and commissioners will adopt the spending plan for 2015-16. 

“I think overall our budget’s in good shape and we’re every pleased with what we were able to put forward,” he said. 

 

 

Be heard

A budget hearing for community members to tell commissioners what they think about the proposed 2015-16 budget will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 4, in room A201 of the Jackson County Administration Building.   

 

 

The highlights

The proposed 2015-16 budget for Jackson County includes $61 million of spending, with 75 percent of funds coming from sales and property tax. Notable items in the proposed budget, which does not include a tax hike, include:

• Jackson County Public Schools would get $2.37 million in capital funding for renovations 

• 9.475 new positions would be added, including a staff attorney, three new Sheriff’s Department positions and 1.5 new positions in the planning department.

• County employees would receive a 2 percent raise and 2.5 days of bonus leave. 

• Southwestern Community College would get a 10.9 percent increase in operations funding. 

• The Good Samaritan Clinic would receive funding for a Nurse Case Management Program.

• Savings for future county capital projects and greenway and recreation projects, to the tune of $1.5 million, would be set aside. 

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