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Macon budget remains agile through pandemic

Despite dire predictions of how local governments would be financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Macon County has fared well so far. Still, County Manager Derek Roland recently ensured commissioners that he’d continue to manage the budget conservatively moving into the 2021-22 fiscal year. 

“We had no idea when we sat here a year ago that in a matter of days our lives would change forever,” Roland told commissioners during a Feb. 4 meeting. “When we grew closer to the budget time in June, COVID-19 cases were rising across the country.” 

Listening to the local government experts, Roland said everything pointed to another recession and budgeting guidelines were given for counties to follow. One of those predictions said that counties could expect to see up to a 50 percent decrease in sales tax revenue, something that would have devastated counties in Western North Carolina that rely on those tourist dollars to support their operational budget.

However, Macon County Finance Director Lori Hall reported that so far, Macon County’s sales tax revenue is 16 percent higher than it was this time last year — halfway through the fiscal year. This same time in 2020, the county had seen an 8.6 percent increase over 2019, so a 16 percent increase during a pandemic is an incredible feat. The state as a whole has seen an 11-percent increase in sales tax revenues.

“We had no idea last year what the impact would be, but so far so good,” she said. 

Roland had budgeted sales tax revenues to be 5 percent less during the 2020-21 budget, but after seeing a 16 percent increase for this year so far, he told commissioners he’d be increasing the projections for the rest of the budget year (June 30, 2021).

Sales tax isn’t the only revenue stream that’s been on the rise in the past year — Roland reported increases to motor vehicle tax, register of deeds, wastewater and well inspections and building inspection fees. 

“These revenue increases have resulted in our ability to largely close the budget gap we faced to begin the fiscal year — getting us to a level that is almost as if COVID-19 had never happened,” he said.

Because of these unexpected revenue increases, Roland requested an amendment to the current 2020-21 budget for $1.7 million, which would be used to restore capital funding to education and public safety — Macon County’s top funding priorities. It will also allow the county to start making adjustments to its pay scale for employees — something that was put on the backburner in the original budget because of the pandemic. 

With the amendment, the school system would be able to complete infrastructure projects outlined in the original 2020-21 spending plan and the sheriff’s department will be able to purchase new vehicles that were in the budget before COVID hit.

Lastly, it will allow the county to restore full funding for the nonprofit community pool fund, which was cut 50 percent in the original budget from $70,000 to $35,000. With so many local nonprofit organizations providing much needed social services during the pandemic, Roland said he wanted to continue to support their efforts.

“I think the additional revenue gain from what I will call a booming but still fragile economy enables us to restore capital funding to our priority areas of public safety and education,” he said. “It’s going to enable us to begin working to identify and make recommendations for addressing inadequacies in our pay scale, to be addressed in the coming fiscal year.”

Roland said the budget amendment would still leave Macon County in an agile position to take realistic measures to reduce the budget if needed as the pandemic drags on into the year without adversely impacting county employees and services. 

Commissioner Gary Shields said he supported the budget amendment to restore funding to these important areas, especially the nonprofit community funding pool. 

Commission Chairman Jim Tate also said he supported the budget amendment and trusted Roland’s ability to “steer the ship” in the right direction. 

“We give you direction, but you are the captain of the ship and we have to trust that you studied this, and your team studied this,” Tate said. “I personally like and respect your decision here and I’m in favor of this. I think you’re doing a fantastic job.”

Commissioner Ronnie Beale agreed, saying that the 2020-21 budget was one of the most difficult and uncertain ones he’s been through and that’s including the 2008 recession. 

“I don’t see nothing on this list that’s frivolous. This is money that was in the original budget and it’s just trying to catch us back up,” he said. 

The $1.7 million budget amendment passed unanimously. 

With that passed, the commissioners will soon begin the process of working on the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. As Roland begins that process with his staff, Tate offered more guidance. Other than keeping the tax rate flat for another year, Tate said he wanted to work on cleaning up the county’s appearance.

“We have a lot of new people coming in and money being spent. We’re obviously in a an extremely desirable place that people want to buy a second or third home, or they make this their primary residence, or they want to move to Macon County,” he said. “I want to make sure Macon County is clean, our buildings are up to par, our grounds, like Parker Meadows, are being taken care of to the best of our abilities. I want to make our government welcoming and not necessarily an eye sore.”

There’s a lot to consider moving into the new budget year, Roland said. The county has a completed Space Needs Analysis before them that prioritizes the need for major renovation projects at the courthouse, jail and senior center. The county is also in the process of getting bids for a major renovation project at Macon Middle School and has plans to renovate the old armory building before leasing it to Southwestern Community College for its public safety program. That project will also include constructing a new burn building for fire safety training.

If the county is able to purchase some property in the Nantahala community, those residents might finally get the new community center and library they’ve been wanting for the last several years. 

“We’re in the due diligence period for a piece of property in Nantahala — a property purchase that could potentially be the new location for a community center and library,” Roland said. 

Other priorities include continuing broadband expansion in Macon County as well as improvements to the county’s recycling centers. 

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