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Swain increases budget, maintains same tax rate

brysoncitySwain County Board of Commissioners approved a $14 million budget last week with little discussion or debate. 

While other county governments in the region have drawn fairly large crowds this year at their budget public hearings, not one person signed up to speak at Swain’s public hearing. 

Macon County Commissioners had a packed room of residents who were lobbying for more public library funding. Haywood County had a packed courtroom of residents questioning a number of funding considerations, including a tax increase, employee raises and proposed capital projects. 

Swain County commissioners were also faced with some of the same issues — uncertain state and federal revenue, cost-of-living raises for employees and increasing costs for health insurance — yet no one from the public attended the public hearing.  

“Most people show up when they have something to complain about, but I wish they would show up even if they don’t have anything to say — any input is always good,” said Commissioner Ben Bushyhead. “I think we need to perhaps figure out how to get that public input on the upswing.”

While last year’s county budget can be found by digging through the commissioners’ meeting minutes, the 2015-16 proposed budget wasn’t posted on the county’s website for people to preview. 

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Major changes

However, the lack of interest could be because Swain County was one of few counties in the area that didn’t increase its tax rate this year. County Manager Kevin King recommended a budget of $14,312,647 while keeping the tax rate at 36 cents per $100 of assessed property value. 

This is the second year in a row the county hasn’t increased taxes. The tax rate was increased from 33 cents to 36 cents in 2013. King said this year’s budget did increase by about $600,000 from last year. About half of that will go toward capital improvements for Swain County Schools and the rest will go to pay increases for employees and an increase to health insurance costs.

King wrote in his budget message that the budget includes a 2 percent cost of living raise for county employees, a $1,000 per year, per employee increase in health premiums and a 0.02 percent increase in mandatory retirement benefits for employees. 

“This year has been particularly difficult in light of the status of the state and federal budget and the cutbacks in service revenues for the Department of Social Services, Health Department and Emergency Medical Services Medicaid reimbursements and the difficulty in maintaining low-cost health care for our employees,” he wrote in his budget message. 

The county transferred $50,000 from its fund balance — basically a savings account — to balance this year’s budget. Luckily, a $70,000 increase in sales tax revenue helped offset the additional expenses this year. 


Understanding the budget

This year was the first budget process for Bushyhead and Commissioner Danny Burns, who were elected last fall. The budget process started months ago as commissioners reviewed each department’s request. Bushyhead said it has been a learning experience, and he hopes to have a better idea of the big picture next year. 

“I think next year will be a little more clear to me,” he said. “As a commissioner, I’d like a little bit more say and input into all the budget and not just certain items.” 

While seasoned commissioners are fairly quiet when it comes to budget talks, Bushyhead said he would like to see more discussion among the board. He wants people to be able to ask questions without looking uneducated. 

“The big thing is having a willingness to question it and ask questions to understand it — not merely thinking it will sound dumb,” he said. 

If commissioners have a hard time making sense of a five-page budget of individual line items, it only makes sense that the public might not understand it — or even attempt to understand what it means. 


Sheriff pay

During the budget hearing, Bushyhead did ask the board to have further discussion regarding Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s request for a $20,000 raise. The board seemed to be in consensus at last month’s meeting to compromise by giving Cochran an $8,000 increase. No vote was ever taken. 

Commissioner Danny Burns said he didn’t think it was fair to give the sheriff even an $8,000 raise since every other county employee would be receiving a 2 percent raise this year. 

Bushyhead made a motion to approve a $5,000 raise for Cochran. With a current salary of about $73,000, a $5,000 raise would still be more than a 5 percent pay increase. 

Commissioner Steve Moon then motioned to give the sheriff a 2 percent raise just like all the other employees. 

Burns seconded Bushyhead’s motion. 

Commissioner David Monteith said he would vote in favor of the $5,000 raise since the board wasn’t going to take a vote on the $8,000 option. The motion passed 3-2 with Commissioners Phil Carson and Steve Moon opposed. 

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