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Obscure budget stats a ‘bellwether’ of economic recovery

haywoodHaywood County could be turning a corner after a slow, stubborn climb out of the recession, according to some obscure tidbits of data hidden in the bowels of the county’s budget for the coming fiscal year.

“The economy appears it is recovering,” County Manager Ira Dove said during a budget presentation this week. “That’s the good news.”

The most notable good news is a 7.7 percent increase in sales tax collections, a sign of increased consumer spending. While the state keeps most of the sales tax, a portion is kicked back to counties. 

Sales tax coming back to Haywood County reached a high of $13.8 million in 2007, and then dropped steadily to a low of $9.9 million in 2010, before beginning to climb again. This year, sales tax will bring in $13.7 million — almost back to the pre-recession level of 2007. 

Economists typically lean on old-fashioned labor statistics — like the unemployment rate and average income — as their go-to benchmarks of how the economy is doing.

Those are indeed telling figures. Unemployment in Haywood County hit a high of 12 percent in 2010. Now the unemployment rate is just 5 percent — also back to pre-recession levels.

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But economists wanting to put a little more zip in their punditry should try plying the 300-plus pages of the county budget for factoids like this: the number of citizens on food assistance came down from 10,700 in 2014 to 10,300 in 2015. 

“Those food and nutrition services are a bellwether of how the economy is going. This is the first time I have seen since 2007 that the number has gone down,” said Dove who was director of Haywood County’s Department of Social Services prior to taking over as county manager.

There are still far more on food assistance than before the recession — the number was 6,000 in 2007 — but the number is at least moving in the right direction.

“There was a significant increase for several years and it flatlined and now has started to go back down,” Dove said.

The number of children in foster care has also dropped for two years in a row. Child neglect typically spikes in a bad economy, leading to a rise in children needing foster care. Four years ago, the county scrambled to allocate emergency funding for foster care to handle rising numbers.

Last year, foster care was provided for 149 children, compared to 163 children in 2013.

The county’s budget also tracks construction through its collection of building permit fees, and those numbers were up, too. The first three quarters of the current fiscal year saw 365 building permits, compared to 351 during the same period the prior year.

The county has seen an even larger spike in the number of septic tank permits, which can be a precursor to construction or an indicator land is about to be put on the market. The number of septic tank applications the first quarter of 2016 is up 34 percent over the first quarter of 2015.

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