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Swain on track to pass status-quo budget

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has been lobbying commissioners for years to increase pay for his detention officers. File photo Sheriff Curtis Cochran has been lobbying commissioners for years to increase pay for his detention officers. File photo

In preparing the proposed budget for 2019-20, Swain County continues to hold the line on the county’s low property tax rate, but it will mean that some funding requests and county needs will have to wait another year. 

County Manager Kevin King recently presented commissioners with a proposed $17.6 million budget, which is about $246,000 more than last year’s budget of $15.2 million. King proposed maintaining the current property tax rate of 36 cents per $100 of assessed value. 

It’s a tight budget just like it has been for the last several years. King told commissioners $245,000 had to be transferred from the county’s fund balance to the general fund in order to balance the budget, which is why he wasn’t able to incorporate any of the county personnel committee’s recommendations this year.

“There’s no other way to get additional operational revenue unless you’re ready to do a major tax increase,” he told the board last week.

The county has been struggling for years to offer competitive pay for its employees in order to keep a high quality of services for residents and to better retain the employees they have. While commissioners especially want to increase pay for longtime employees and for low-paid positions like detention center officers at the county jail, the budget simply hasn’t allowed for it. The budget only includes a one-time $500 bonus for all employees. 

Members of the personnel committee still took the time to go over their recommendations to the board though, during its regular meeting last Thursday. 

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“We know it won’t be this year, but we’re trying to look to the future,” said Brent Jones with the health department.

The committee requested to add a policy that would allow employees with 20 years of service to retire at 60 years old and continue to receive health insurance through the county until they are 65 years old. Secondly, the committee wanted to change the health insurance deductibles to make it the same cost whether you have single coverage or dependent coverage. 

In addition to increasing pay for sheriff office employees and 911 dispatchers, the committee wants to adopt a new salary step plan to give a 2 percent increase each year. Jones said he thought a step plan would help the county retain its more experienced employees who will provide better services to residents. 

“I think it will be vitally important to Swain County’s future,” he said. “You’ll have better employees, more longevity and you’re not spending as much on training for them to leave for another county.”

Commissioner Kevin Seagle, who is also a part-time employee with the building inspections department, said he agreed with the idea of the step program even if it’s just a small increase each year. 

“It helps people know where they’ll be in five to 10 years and it’s a disservice to the community by continuing to train people and then lose them,” he said. 

Because a majority of the pay raises county employees receive are cost of living increases, Jones said they have longtime employees who are making just a few thousand more a year than employees who’ve only been with the county for five years. New employees are starting at higher pay because of the COLA bumps and it’s not fair to the veteran employees, he said. 

Commissioner Kenneth Parton said he attended a couple of the personnel committee meetings to discuss some of these issues. While they didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, he does see the benefits of retaining quality employees. 

Though salaries might not be as competitive as they’d like to be, he said the county benefits of retirement and health insurance should be considered as well since many in the private sector don’t get those kinds of benefits. 

“There’s already benefits of being a county employee — have retirement and insurance — that means something,” he said. “And we usually hire within the county government so there’s opportunities to move up.”

Parton said training and retention is a problem for every business and that perhaps the county should require employees to repay the cost of training if they leave within a certain amount of time. 

Seagle agreed and said he remembered signing a document when he started working for the county that agreed he would repay his classes if he didn’t stay for a certain period of time. 

“If someone didn’t want to pay back their schooling cost, it would cost more to try to recoup that cost in court,” he said. 

Sheriff Curtis Cochran said they discussed that option during last year’s budget process but that the county’s attorney didn’t think such a contract would have any validity.

Perry Schuler with the county recreation department said they do appreciate the COLA each year but that it hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation. 

“Yes, it’s a raise but you have to look at inflation. We’re getting more money but it’s taking more money to pay bills and buy groceries,” he said. “I love the step program if you can afford it.”

Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead said he thought the county already had a pay step program in place. 

King said they did away with the 10-point step plan and reinstated a three-step program. 

“We were trying to move the people with longevity further up the scale,” he said. “It used to be more political — people would just come before the board and ask for a raise and it would get approved or not so things got a little off kilter.”

King pointed out the county also offers longevity pay and employees get a $1,000 check on their five-year anniversary and another $1,000 on their 10-year anniversary plus 1.5 percent of their salary.

Commissioner Roger Parton asked King to provide the board with projections of what it would cost to implement the committee’s recommendations. 

King also informed the board that the county’s water and sewer enterprise fund showed a deficit this year, which prompted the state to send the county a warning letter. Now King has to go to Raleigh soon and explain why and give testimony as to how the county plans to make it more sustainable. 

“We have to look at ways to make the fund more sustainable, which is to either increase the waste fee or you can try to incorporate (the cost) into the millage rate,” King said. 

Commissioners would have to increase the tax rate by take 4.5 cents to make the fund sustainable, which means people with a $100,000 valued home would pay about $60 a year while people with a million-dollar house would have to pay $400 a year. Now everyone pays a flat $75 annual fee. 

“We’re gonna get dinged on it every year until we get it fixed,” he said.

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