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Decision time coming for Haywood budget

Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead addresses commissioners on May 3. Haywood government photo Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead addresses commissioners on May 3. Haywood government photo

Although the recommended budget won’t be presented for another two weeks, Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead took the opportunity on May 3 to present commissioners with a picture of what it might look like — on the heels of a historic revaluation that saw property values increase by nearly 20 percent countywide.

Property taxes are usually a local government’s largest source of revenue, and that’s certainly true in the case of Haywood County. They’re calculated by taking a property’s assessed value, dividing it by 100, and then multiplying that number by the tax rate. 

Normally, it’s the rate that taxpayers complain about, as it can be changed by municipal governing boards during the budget process each year. But this year, property values driven by Asheville’s red-hot housing market will generate roughly 17 percent more revenue for Haywood County on the existing tax rate of 58.5 cents. 

Based on current budgetary spending, commissioners could drop the tax rate all the way down to 50.78 cents and still have enough money to pay for everything the county needs in a regular year. 

That’s not likely to happen, as salaries and health care coverage costs increase every year, however, the county is not likely to keep the rate at 58.5 cents, either. 

Additionally, sales tax collections — which were expected to tank last year during the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic — have done the exact opposite. 

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Morehead said that sales tax collections were up almost 16 percent, something he called “unreal.” Some months, he said, were up more than 20 percent. 

Commissioners will now set about the task of deciding between needs and wants, and between how much of the revenue surplus they should keep and how much to return to taxpayers in a 2021-22 budget that’s very much focused on employee compensation. 

Although they’re still waiting on the results of an employee compensation study, Morehead estimates increases associated with that study could amount to around $2.3 million. County employees will still receive merit pay of up to 2 percent, as well as a COLA adjustment of 2 percent and a Christmas bonus. 

During the last budget year, employee health care coverage costs should have risen about 5 percent, but that increase wasn’t funded due to concerns over revenue during the pandemic. This year, the county’s got some catching up to do, so costs will rise 11.7 percent for active employees and 8.7 percent for county retirees. 

Vehicle replacement is a constant worry for most local governments, especially since vehicles used for public service often have pricey modifications that push the sticker price well above what a private citizen would pay on the lot. Last year the county replaced 15 vehicles at a cost of $700,000, but this year 24 new vehicles are needed, including two ambulances totaling more than $500,000 alone. 

Various county departments have also made additional staffing requests, some of which will likely be funded and some of which not. Morehead’s preliminary budget approves six of 10 requested positions in the Sheriff’s Office — all telecommunicators. Animal Services should see both of their requested positions funded, and the county Health and Human Services Agency should see four of seven requested positions funded. 

The Tax Assessor’s office, along with county EMS, won’t likely see funding for their requests for three and one positions, respectively. 

Per state law, county and municipal budgets must be approved by June 30. This week, individual budget meetings will take place, with the recommended budget presentation scheduled for May 17. The first public hearing will take place on June 1, with possible budget adoption scheduled for June 7. 

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