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Cutbacks could be less severe in Swain budget

Though the Swain County government hasn’t escaped the recession completely, the blow dealt by the economy has been softer there than in other places.

While other local governments are contemplating tax increases, Swain County commissioners are looking to lower the county’s property tax rate by one cent. And while local governments across the state are laying off lots of employees, just three positions will be cut from Swain’s county departments.

Those proposed cuts were laid out in a commissioner workshop last week focusing on the 2009-2010 county budget.

In general, the Swain County government runs a tight ship, said County Manager Kevin King, which is why large cutbacks haven’t been necessary.

“We’re bare bones in our line items,” King said. “It’s not like we have this fluff in our budget. We’re cutting it close every year.”


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Positions cut

County employees are taking the biggest hit under the proposed budget cuts. They will be made to take a mandatory week of furlough. Commissioners volunteered to take two weeks of unpaid leave.

The three positions that would be cut under the proposed budget come from fee-structured departments or were put in place over the last year.

One deputy position will be cut, and the building inspections department will lose two positions — a building inspector and an environmental health specialist. The department has seen a dramatic reduction in its workload due to the slowdown in the second-home market in the mountains. King said building inspections are down between 50 and 60 percent in the county, and that the county took in just $200 in building permit fees in April.

All told, the personnel moves — with the furloughs and the eliminated positions — would save $233,000.

“I hate to see anyone get laid off or lose their job,” lamented Commissioner Phil Carson.

King assured commissioners that while things may not seem that bad right now, the cuts are necessary as a precautionary measure.

“We’ve been through tougher times, but if you have three to four years of this economy and you don’t do these cuts, you’ll be back in the same shape,” the county was in previously, King said. Swain’s fund balance once hung at dangerously low levels.

Commissioners hope to ease the burden on county residents by proposing a one-cent property tax cut, from the current rate of 33 cents per $100 of valuation to 32 cents.

Under the property revaluation that went into effect this year, properties values rose an average of 30 percent. It’s unclear whether the move will satisfy the scores of Swain residents who have turned out to protest the revaluation figures.


New jail

As it stands, the county has to find $110,000 additional monies to cut before its budget is balanced. But more cuts could be possible if the county’s new jail fails to produce enough revenue to make the hefty $454,000 per year loan payments on the facility.

Revenue on the jail has so far not met projections, King said. The county projected $565,000 in revenue, but has collected just $100,000 so far this year.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the county has projected its revenue based on 25 out-of-county prisoners housed at the jail each day. The county receives a certain amount of money from housing state and federal prisoners from other counties.

However, Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that the jail is averaging between 15 and 20 out-of-county prisoners per day.

King asked Cochran to let him know if he doesn’t think the jail will be able to increase its out-of-county prisoner numbers to meet projections.

“I guess we’re going to be optimistic about the future of the jail,” King said. “I guess. If not, we’re going to have to scale back $300,000 somehow.”

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