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Macon budget avoids tax increase, layoffs

If you’re a county commissioner in Western North Carolina, it’s hard not to feel envious of Macon County’s budget. While surrounding counties are grappling with layoffs and — in Haywood’s case — a tax increase, Macon County commissioners have managed to largely dodge the economic downturn that has stricken other places.

“On the local level, we’re not doing too bad compared to other places,” County Manager Jack Horton told a crowd of local residents who gathered to hear him speak about the budget last Thursday (June 11).

It’s not that Macon County hasn’t felt any impact from the economy. The county’s $42 million budget is the lowest it’s been in five years. Building and septic permits, a major county source of revenue, are down significantly. In April of this year, just $3.1 million in building permits were issued, compared to $11 million in April 2008. The county predicts sales tax revenues will plummet 10 percent next year.

Commissioners have implemented several decreases to balance the budget, said Horton, but it “hasn’t dealt with any mass layoffs or severe budget cuts. We’re basically trying to hold our own and keep our services in place so when the economy picks back up we’ll keep on going.”

The commissioners already decided in the middle of the current fiscal year that they wouldn’t be asking for more money from taxpayers.

“We live with what we have,” was the thinking, said Horton.

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So to save money, the county is not including a cost of living increase for employees in this year’s budget and likely won’t fill positions that become vacant. Schools won’t get any extra money over last year, and capital funding to schools will be reduced from $700,000 to $500,000. The fact that Macon schools are getting capital outlay at all is a big contrast to many other counties, who have had to slash capital projects altogether for the school system. While other counties have put a halt on new school projects, a new early college campus is being finished in Macon County, and a new field is being put in at the Highlands School. In total, Macon County Schools are getting about the same amount of funding as they received last year — a total of $6.9 million.

It’s the state — not Macon County — that might end up impacting the school budget the most.

“The thing that’s making me really concerned is how much they’re looking at cutting education,” said Horton.

Under the proposed state budget, $800,000 in teacher salaries would be cut in Macon County. That’s equivalent to about 26 positions — and it’s unclear whether the county would be able to supplement the cutback.

“If the state cuts positions in the school system, can the county pick them up?” said Horton. “Our own county commissioners are pressing the state to step up and support the education budget.”

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