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Pandemic presents budget challenge for Swain

County governments are in the midst of planning for their 2020-21 fiscal budgets that have to be approved by the end of June, but the COVID-19 Pandemic is going to throw a wrench in their ability to project revenues for the remainder of the year.

At a recent budget workshop, Swain County Manager Kevin King told commissioners he was recommending the board adopt an interim budget that would cover July 1 to Oct. 1.

“It’s going to be difficult to predict revenue between now and July so I’m proposing the board adopt an interim budget until Oct. 1 so we can work through the forecast and expenses up until Oct. 1,” King said. 

The interim budget will basically carry forward the 2019-20 fiscal budget through Oct. 1 with no new funding included. During the Great Recession, King said, the county saw a 5 percent reduction in sales tax revenue for 2007 and an 8 percent reduction in 2008. His best guess is that Swain County can expect the same kind of revenue loss during the COVID-19 Pandemic if the shelter in place orders don’t last more than three months. 

Either way, King presented commissioners with a list of capital needs the county will need to prioritize going into the budget process. 

“First is the jail — this year we’re looking at several bigger ticket items that need to be replaced,” he said. 

The biggest need is a new grinder pump, which could be a $40,000 expense to replace.

“There’s a certain amount of waste still getting through the grinder and it’s getting through to the wastewater treatment plant, so the town wants us to fix that grinder,” King said. “They don’t make that kind of pump anymore, so we’ll have to take out the whole mechanism and replace it.”

The jail also has 12 HVAC systems that are about 14 years old. King said the county should begin replacing two each year to ensure they all get replaced soon. One of the boilers in the jail got replaced last year, but now the second boiler needs to be replaced either this year or the next. 

Lastly, the town of Bryson City also wants to partner with the county on replacing some old water and sewer pipes that run under the old courthouse — now the heritage museum. There were old water and sewer taps on the lines that were supposedly capped off years ago, but the town is experiencing leaks in that area and it’s seeping back into the sewer system. 

“The town wants to replace the main line through there … they’ll have to tear up our parking lot to replace the old clay pipe with ductile lines and take out the old taps that were put in,” King said. 

Bryson City will pay for the project and is asking the county to cover the cost of repaving the parking lot behind the museum.

Swain County is also looking to add on a courtroom to the courthouse — formerly the administration building on Mitchell Street. King said a proposal will be ready soon to go out to bid and the county is also looking to get a grant or loan from USDA to complete the project. The only cost in the 2020-21 budget would be about $30,000 for architectural planning work.

The county has also been discussing much-needed improvements to the pool at the recreation center. The most inexpensive proposal would include installing a beach-like entrance to the shallow end of the pool and changing the deep end from 12 feet to 8 feet deep. The slide would move to the opposite side. The proposed cost is $382,000 and the county received a $100,000 grant to put toward the project. Without knowing how much longer the shelter in place orders will last, King said the county is still moving forward with plans to open the pool this summer. 

Since commissioners passed an Animal Control Ordinance last year, King brought up the potential costs of constructing an animal shelter and adding personnel to enforce the ordinance. He said there was a company that would come in and build a steel shell building for $250,000 and then the county crews could come in to finish the interior, which would cost another $100,000. The site would be property already owned by the county at the intersection of Industrial Park Road and U.S. 19.

To offset the expense, the county is working to sell the former police department building on the corner of Main Street and Rector Street. Right now the bid for the building is up to $426,500, King said, and other bidders have until April 16 to outbid the current offer. 

Other project priorities, including improvements to the federal building and creating an Ela Sewer District, will be discussed at future budget meetings. During social distancing, the public can watch the commissioners’ meeting on the Swain County Government’s YouTube channel

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