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Canton’s government ponders austerity measures

Canton's government, still operating out of a temporary building after flooding in 2021, is tightening up its budget. Canton's government, still operating out of a temporary building after flooding in 2021, is tightening up its budget. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Administrators from the Town of Canton’s various departments met with Mayor Zeb Smathers and members of the town board March 23 to begin to prepare for the financial impact of the closing of Pactiv Evergreen’s paper mill, estimated by Town Manager Nick Scheuer at roughly $3 million.

“While we won’t be facing those numbers this fiscal year, we need to be prepared for the future,” Scheuer said in kicking off the special called budget session.

Local government units in North Carolina must pass annual budgets by July 1 each year, and the town was in the middle of an otherwise normal budget planning process when The Smoky Mountain News broke the story of the mill’s impending closure on March 6.

“This is another level of heartbreak that mill closure has brought,” Smathers said. “It’s heartbreaking, all the ideas and things we were going to do that would help the citizens of the town just a month ago.”

Real and personal property taxes are assessed on Jan. 1 of each year, so Pactiv Evergreen will still be responsible for those costs, at least through the end of this year.

The immediate concern for the town is a forthcoming decrease in water revenue, and an undetermined decrease in sales tax revenue as a result of the loss of roughly 1,000 local jobs.

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Canton CFO Natalie Walker presented to aldermen and alderwomen a revised budget that included cuts offered up by heads of police, fire, recreation, streets and sanitation.

The revised budgets trimmed $220,000 from original requests.

“Even with those cuts, we think [the budget] is too high,” Walker told the board as they picked through remaining requests from department heads.

Scheuer said they’d worked to eliminate as many budget items and contractual services as possible without impacting town services, and that the front office staff has begun performing mopping and cleaning services at town hall.

Smathers commended the individual departments for their “selfless” budgets, before Walker said she’d go back and reevaluate the town’s annual budget, maybe have some more talks with department heads and then present the recommended budget in the next few months.

Walker hopes to find another $100,000 to $250,000 to cut.

“I’m gonna be honest with y’all, I have been dreading this moment,” said Smathers, who added that he was looking for ways to help Canton without sacrificing the town’s safety, or its soul.

On that note, Smathers mentioned that staff was still working to fund the all-abilities playground planned for recreation park, and that the town’s popular “Pickin’ in the Park” series would be fully funded.

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