Swain budget holds the line
Swain County’s proposed budget for 2018-19 will maintain the status quo without a proposed property tax increase or any major capital projects in the works.
County Manager Kevin King presented commissioners with a proposed budget of over $15.2 million, which is slightly down from last year’s $15.6 million budget. King proposed maintaining the current property tax rate of 36 cents per $100 of assessed value.
King said he anticipated a small decrease in revenues because of a change in sales tax laws, but expenses are also down since the expansion project at East Swain Elementary is now complete and off the books.
Swain County has also taken another $100,000 hit on what it has to pay the state for the federal portion of Medicaid costs.
“This year has been increasingly difficult due to the impact of reduced revenues in the Medicaid hold harmless due to increased Medicaid expenses and a projected reduction of sales tax for the 2018-19 fiscal year,” King said. “Other issues affecting the budget are the Department of Social Services child welfare program, the Community Alternatives Program for Disabled Adults and reductions in state funding for the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Health Department.”
Swain County has been trying to improve its employee recruitment and retention by increasing wages in the last few years. A personnel committee was formed and has met several times before making recommendations to the commissioners. The committee proposed a 1.5 percent cost of living increase for employees, a step plan proposal, a sign-on bonus and comp time buyout program. However, King doesn’t think it will all be possible with this year’s tight budget.
“When looking over the anticipated revenue for next fiscal year, I could not recommend to the board the entire committee’s proposal,” he said.
While he did place $90,000 in the budget — an amount equal to a 1.5 percent cost of living raise, he said it would be up to the board to decide the best method for distributing raises to employees. Options include a 1.5 percent COLA, a flat $500 per employee COLA or a bonus of $500.
“The other proposals that came out of this year’s personnel committee will be evaluated in the next several months, specifically concerning the comp time buyout program and the sign on bonus proposal,” King said. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank each member that served on the committee for their hard work with creating these recommendations.”
When looking at improving school safety, the budget does include an additional $43,000 to hire one more school resource officer. Sheriff Curtis Cochran had asked for two more SROs in his budget request to place additional officers at the middle and high schools. It’s unclear where the new SRO will be placed or whether he or she will split time between schools.
State funding covers a portion of the cost of the SROs, but the school system is asking the county this year to pick up the remaining cost not covered by the state.
Swain County Schools has also asked for more than $1.3 million to cover a majority of its local operating expenses. The remaining operating revenue comes from timber sales ($9,002) and fines and forfeitures ($75,000).
Lastly, the school system is requesting $160,000 for capital outlay expenses. Swain County High School has the most capital needs — $147,000 is needed for a new parking area, fire alarm upgrades, a new exhaust hood for the chemistry lab, new paint and replacing auditorium seats. The school board also budgeted $45,000 for new door locks at all the schools.
To be able to get rid of the backlog of maintenance and upgrade projects needed at Swain County Schools, the school board approved placing a quarter-cent sales tax increase referendum on the general election ballot in November. The same referendum was on the ballot in 2016, but it failed.
School board members and commissioners have said they think it failed because people didn’t understand what it would be used for, which is why the boards are trying harder to educate residents of the benefits.
An additional quarter cent will increase Swain’s sales tax from 6.75 percent to 7 percent and is expected to produce another $300,000 in revenue for the school system to put toward infrastructure needs. The increase would not apply to fuel or gas.
Whether it passes or not, King said the county and the school system is working on getting a major renovation project going at the high school, adding that some N.C. Education Lottery funding would be put toward it.
“We’re looking at trying to work with the school system on a renovation project at the high school,” he said. “There’s nothing in the budget at this point, but we’re figuring out the next steps.”
Budget public hearing
The Swain County Commissioners will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 14, at the county administrative building for the purpose of receiving public comment regarding the 2018-19 proposed budget.