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Sylva starts budget process with needs vs. wants

Public safety accounts for the largest portion of Sylva's budget. File photo Public safety accounts for the largest portion of Sylva's budget. File photo

Sylva began its budget process last week with presentations from department heads about what they need in the budget, as well as what they want to see in the budget.

The town is in a good financial position but is budgeting for reduced revenues in the years ahead as both sales tax and property tax revenues are projected to fall. 

“You’re in a beautiful location, you’ve got a downtown that towns would die for, you’ve got a great staff and it’s just a great place to live, work and play,” said Interim Town Manager Richard Hicks. 

Sylva currently has a tax rate of $0.45 per $100 of property valuation, and the 2023/24 fiscal year’s general fund budget totaled just under $6 million. One cent of tax revenue is equal to about $50,000 for the town.

“I think you had a pretty successful year last year,” said Hicks.

As the town moves into the fiscal year 2024-25 budget, it will have to face increasing health insurance and other personnel costs like competitive pay and retirement, as well as increased costs of goods and services and decreasing property tax revenue due to N.C. 107 construction. Additionally, there will be no more American Rescue Plan funds in the 2024-25 budget that were given out during the pandemic years.

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“Personnel costs, being able to compete and salaries, that’s something you’ve got to look at every year. It’s harder and harder to find good, qualified people and your competitors are paying more,” said Hicks. “It’s pretty difficult finding good, qualified applicants, especially law enforcement.” 

Jackson County will undergo a property tax revaluation in 2025, but it will not be reflected until the 2025-26 fiscal year budget.

In the upcoming fiscal year budget, the police department anticipates it will need two new patrol vehicles to keep up with the current rotation. The department will purchase Ford Explorers, which are the cheapest option out of the types of cars that make sense for Sylva. Each car costs $43,000 to purchase, and around $60,000 after it is outfitted with all the necessary police equipment.

The police department is also in need of a firearms upgrade. Total retail cost for the upgrade would run around $13,000, but the police department gets special deals for this type of purchase and has been able to negotiate down to $6,500.

“In the grand scheme of the budget, for the results that we get back from that, to me that’s not a lot of money for what it could potentially save us,” said Police Chief Chris Hatton. 

According to Hatton, the firearms in use now were bought under Chief Davis Woodard, who held that position from 2010 to 2017. 

“The upgrade that we’re looking to make, we’re the last, probably, in the surrounding counties… that hasn’t already done it,” said Hatton. “It’s time for new ones. And not just because of the wear and tear on the firearms, but there’s also a lot of new technology out there that makes our officers honestly safer, and more accurate.”

Lastly, the police department needs a new server as the current one is obsolete and no longer supports software upgrades. This will cost the town around $8,000.

“That’s our needs, those are the things we’re looking to put on our budget,” said Hatton. “We are not asking for any ‘wants’ this year. Obviously, we have lots of potential budget shortages and that type of thing, so I feel like if we get those needs, I think we’re OK as far as wants go.”

The police department is also starting a cadet program to help fill open positions. This means the department can sponsor a prospective employee after they get to a certain point in their Basic Law Enforcement Training classes. Sylva Police can technically hire that student and start paying them to finish their basic training and as soon as they come out, they have a job with Sylva. This cadet program will not cost the town beyond what is currently budgeted because it will only be used to fill vacant positions, in which the department does not have another employee to pay. 

The fire department will need to pay for heating in its station. The town had to pay $50,000 on the heating system in the past two years to keep it running, quite poorly, according to Fire Chief Mike Beck. The temperature in the fire station can get down to as low as 40 degrees.  

The town will also need to pay for a new pumper truck for the fire department, which will cost around $700,000. The town is three years behind the replacement schedule for this vehicle.

The fire department is also in need of three additional personnel. Two of those positions will be requested from the county in its upcoming 2024-25 budget. The county already funds the building payment and eight staff members.

From the town, the fire department is requesting one full-time position to be added in February, someone who can fill in for people on vacation or sick leave.

The town currently funds overtime pay for the fire department at about $90,000 a year. Hicks said that the savings from overtime should cover the costs of the additional fire department employee.

“When people are working overtime, keep in mind we’re talking about 48-hour shifts,” said Beck. “Eventually you’re gonna burn that person out if we keep doing that to them.” 

Beck would also like to repaint the second floor of the fire station and replace the carpet, but these items are classified as wants rather than needs.

The public works department needs a new equipment trailer that will cost the town around $7,000. The department will also need a new air compressor, which should run about $3,000, as well as a new computer that is estimated at $2,500. The current computer is five years old and cannot handle software upgrades needed to read project plans, among other things. 

Under the ‘wants’ category, Public Works Director Jake Scott would also like to see an upgraded tire machine, around $8,500, and an upgraded welder, around $5,000.

“I’ve got these separated into needs and wants, but I will point out that the wants this year will be needs next year,” said Scott.

Public Works will have some larger capital needs in the coming years. A new brush truck will be needed in FY 2025-26, and a new garbage truck will be necessary in FY 2026-27, both of which run about $250,000.

Economic Development Director Bernadette Peters requested $10,000 for matching funds for the façade grant and technical assistance grant programs. She is looking for funding for downtown landscaping following several projects that are underway or upcoming and would also like to see a supply building at Bridge Park, LED strip lights for downtown light poles and ADA- compliant connectors to Dillsboro’s new walking bridge in order to connect the towns. 

The next budget work session will take place Thursday, March 21, at which time town staff will have organized board members’ funding priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. A balanced  draft budget will be sent out by Thursday, April 18, after which the board can opt for more work sessions if needed. A public hearing on the budget will be held Thursday,  May 30 and the town will approve a budget prior to the July 1 deadline.

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