A Tale of Two Cities: Canton, Maggie Valley chart different budget courses
Each year, counties and municipalities must pass their upcoming year’s budget by July 1.
Backtracking from that date, aldermen, alderwomen and county commissioners need time to digest the information contained in the oft-voluminous budget documents, which must also be subject to public hearings that come after months of workshops, retreats and bleary-eyed nights by department heads, managers and financial analysts.
This past week saw the first preliminary budgets released to the public — the towns of Canton and Maggie Valley and Haywood County have all begun the final phase of budget adoption, with Waynesville expected to follow in early June.
What both the county and all its municipalities share is that the bulk of their revenue comes from property taxes — expressed as a number of cents per $100 in assessed value.
Naturally, the amount of money collected by the county and the municipalities is the product of the tax rate and the value of all taxable property within the jurisdiction.
Periodically, the county conducts a full revaluation of all property; earlier this year, Haywood County’s revaluation disappointed planners, to say the least.
Despite economic growth in most areas and an emerging recovery from the Great Recession, the county as a whole was down, and valuation in municipalities was flat at best, if not down significantly.
Now, as decision makers labor over upcoming capital projects, payroll and the ever-increasing cost of healthcare, they’ll do so knowing that tax cuts aren’t probable, tax hikes aren’t popular and dipping into the savings account is simply kicking the can down the road.
Thus, everything presented in the preliminary or “manager’s budget” is still subject to change; although the goals of each year’s budget are discussed not long after New Year’s Day, once they’re all together on paper, decisions can be made.
The painful extent to which this will occur is dictated largely by the financial standing of the municipality. Maggie Valley and Canton share some economic similarities, but also some very important differences that will ultimately chart how they not only survive, but thrive, until the next (hopefully) positive revaluation.
The mountain mill town of Canton is home to around 4,200 people and also to the highest municipal taxes in Haywood County.
But that’s not a completely fair characterization; the town’s 58-cent tax rate hasn’t changed in a decade, and won’t this year either, according to former Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss’ budget presentation.
That his budget includes a $1.7 million infrastructure project — improvements to the water line in the Spruce Street area — further speaks to the shrewd financial management by elected officials and managers over that time.
Hendler-Voss left Canton May 12 to take another job in Virginia, but he also left Canton on solid financial ground.
For several years, the town has used its fund balance — basically a “savings account” — to avoid tax increases that may not be needed. In previous years, fund balance was appropriated, but not used and instead returned to the fund, leaving Canton with a 52 percent balance, equivalent to half a year’s expenditures.
The proposed 2017-18 budget across all funds stands at $9.8 million, a 7 percent increase over 2016-17, mostly due to $2 million in sidewalk repairs and water system upgrades, including the Spruce Street project.
Were it not for that project, the budget would have come in almost 11 percent lower than the previous year, due to relatively minor cost increases across funds and departments.
Balancing the proposed budget will require appropriating $290,000, leaving the town with more than $3 million in reserves.
The town’s largest regular expenditures, salaries and health care coverage, account for 46 percent of the total budget but were buoyed by a very modest 2 percent health insurance premium increase, and no net increase in full-time personnel despite the proposed addition of a tenth firefighter.
A number of very necessary, very small one-time expenditures are proposed, like new garage doors at the fleet maintenance shop, remodeled bedrooms in the fire department and a new truck for the public works department.
Canton has of late experienced a good track record of attracting businesses to its once-faded downtown business corridor. Jason Burrell — now the town’s manager — spearheaded economic development efforts under his predecessor Hendler-Voss and appears poised to do so again over the coming year.
Although it’s down from the previous year’s $100,000 allotment, $50,000 is budgeted for economic development reimbursement grants, which is probably more in line with the $31,500 paid out by the town in such grants this year thus far.
“The board was pretty specific that they wanted $100,000,” said Burrell, who added that if some business was to “come out of the woodwork” the town could always try to find more revenue for incentives.
During the budget meeting May 11, Alderwoman Carole Edwards mentioned she’d like to see that figure increase.
Haywood County’s property revaluation, however, dealt the town a double blow by being both negative and larger than expected; valuation in the town of Canton dropped from $277 million to $271 million, about 2 percent.
But small increases in sales tax revenue along with increasingly higher percentages of debt collection have offset the property tax loss; additionally, no general fund revenue will be acquired in the form of debt issuance, and 2.35 percent of all general fund revenue will come from grants or sponsorships.
Some of that will come from increased efforts to make the town’s Labor Day festival self-sufficient, including a new gate charge (see Labor Day, page 21) that could help make ends meet.
“I think it’s too early to tell,” said Alderman Zeb Smathers in regard to the budget. Smathers, like other aldermen and alderwomen, wanted to wait until new town manager Burrell could “get under the hood” of the budget, even though he’d been involved with its creation.
“Part of what I’ll be doing is going over the budget and having more detailed conversations with the board,” Burrell said. “There are some key things that I want to evaluate.”
A budget workshop will likely be held in Canton in the next few weeks, as will a public hearing, possibly June 8 or 22; the town’s budget schedule is currently being determined, but the deadline for adoption is July 1.
The mountain playground town of Maggie Valley is home to around 1,200 residents and also to the lowest municipal taxes in Haywood County.
But that’s not a completely fair characterization; the town is home to thousands of seasonal residents who pay property taxes on some of the county’s priciest parcels, and yearly draws hundreds of thousands of visitors who through room and sales tax leave millions behind when they return to their homes across the region, the nation and the world.
But like in Canton and Haywood County, the recent countywide property revaluation was not kind to Miss Maggie. Taxable value of the town fell 9 percent from $400,110,713 to $365,643,253, a net loss of $34,467,460, which is the lowest taxable value since 2007, when the town was valued at $328,524,853.
Maggie Valley adopted a $2.7 million budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which was up 3.5 percent from the previous year, thanks to small increases in property tax and sales tax revenue.
This year’s $2.7 million budget is down slightly, but because of the reduction in revenue attributable to the revaluation, a revenue-neutral tax rate would raise the town’s 39-cent per $100 tax rate — which hasn’t changed since July of 2012, when it came down from 42 cents — to 51.5 cents.
Each cent of tax equals $35,650 in revenue.
Maggie Valley Town Manager Nathan Clark’s proposed budget, however, includes using $381,397 of fund balance to keep the town’s spending in line with income and retain a more “sustainable” tax rate of 43 cents.
“This puts us in a good position both now and in the future,” said Alderman Mike Eveland during the meeting.
While using fund balance to bail out a budget isn’t recommended as a regular option, it can and does happen, as in Haywood County and Canton this year. And it isn’t always cause for concern.
Maggie Valley’s fund balance was singled out by the North Carolina Local Government Commission in 2003, when it dipped to 26.77 percent; although the LGC recommends an 8 percent stash for larger governments, smaller governments need larger fund balances in case of disaster or downturn.
Since then, sound management has increased Maggie Valley’s fund balance to 107 percent of expenditures in 2016, meaning the town could go more than a year without any income and still meet expenses.
This year’s fund balance allocation would reduce that to just over 93 percent — still a robust savings account.
Accordingly, only limited spending increases are proposed this year.
The town’s 23 full-time employees would all get a 3-percent salary increase totaling about $45,000, and the town will budget for a 4-percent increase on about $245,000 in health care premiums it already pays.
Two major projects — Veterans Park on town hall grounds and a playground also located on town hall grounds — would add $60,000 in new spending.
About $32,000 in public works spending and almost $9,000 for codification of the forthcoming Unified Development Ordinance is proposed, as is $26,000 for a new police car and almost $8,000 for traffic-calming signs on Soco Road.
The Town of Maggie Valley Pedestrian Safety Action Plan was adopted by the Board of Aldermen on Nov. 14, 2016, as a result of the Town Center Master Planning process that began in 2015; the entire project is estimated to cost $2.37 million, but the town could receive a reimbursement for 80 percent of the cost.
Whether or not that happens, initial costs of $35,000 for engineering are only the beginning. But no new debt is proposed in this year’s budget, sales tax projections are up slightly and Maggie Valley plans no fee increases.
“I think the staff has done an excellent job in saving taxpayer money,” said Mayor Saralyn Price.
When asked about fund balance utilization, Price wasn’t overly concerned and said she still felt comfortable with Maggie Valley’s ability to respond to a disaster or downturn.
“Everyone thinks a disaster can’t happen, but Clyde and Canton would beg to differ,” she said of the 2004 floods that decimated the two towns. “Going forward, I’d like to see us get back to a year’s worth.”
A public hearing on the budget will take place at 6 p.m. Monday, June 12 at Maggie Valley Town Hall, 3987 Soco Road, but two yet-to-be scheduled work sessions may also take place — one before, and one after. Although the budget could be adopted on June 12, the deadline for adoption is July 1.