County budget focuses on sustaining services

Facing one of the most difficult budget years in recent history, County Manager Rick Morris said his proposed budget seeks to maintain key county services while limiting tax increases in coming years.

His proposed budget calls for a 6 cent property tax increase this year along with a 1.5 cent fire tax increase and depends on puling $1 million from the county’s fund balance to balance the budget.

“Our objective is to keep the fund balance at around 20 percent,” he said during a budget work session on Friday. “The good news is we are going to be a little better off next year than I thought. It looks right now that if something unexpected does not happen we will have more fund balance from this year to carry forward and a tax rate increase may not be required next year.”

He said the proposed $44,827006 budget represents an increase of 2.27 percent driven by increased base salaries and part-time rates for public safety personnel, health insurance increases, and structural increases in personnel costs.

School funding

The proposed budget maintains level funding for school current expenses and provides $700,000 in capital funding.

The school board had requested a $1,013,058 increase in local current expense funding, due largely to the depletion of their own fund balance.

“As ADM decreases, at what point does that start to impact the budget?” asked Morris. “Is it logical to leave them at this level for next year?”

Schools Superintendent Ronnie Mendenhall said he was unsure how the school system would adjust its budget if the commissioners agreed to level funding.

“We have looked at what Mr. Morris has recommended,” he said. “We will be going back down the current expense budget and we will probably take to the board some suggestions on some possibilities of where we might could make some cuts. But it is going to be hard. We felt the budget was pretty bare-bones when we sent it up there.

“It is going to be difficult to come up with that amount,” he added, noting that he could not say yet whether balancing the budget could result in personnel cuts. “We are looking at trying to find over $900,000. We will meet with commissioners on June 11 and will make one last plea to them to see if they can give us more money, but it is going to be difficult this year. We are looking for places to find this amount of money.”

Increased funding for emergency personnel

Morris said one of the main focuses in the budget was to improve pay for sworn officers, jailers, emergency medical technicians and telecommunicators by providing a three-grad increase in base salaries.

“We will not be able to operate these departments without some changes,” he said, noting that the county has lost 103 employees so far this year, largely due to the employees moving to jobs in surrounding counties for better pay. “My hope is this increase will be enough to stop the bleeding, but the real test will be whether they stop walking or not.

“Our salaries are not competitive,” he added. “We are at the bottom of the state in almost everything. There is one sheriff in the state that makes less than ours and he only has eight deputies.”

Commissioner Leon Inman said the problem was greater than just figuring out short-term staffing.

“As I sit here and think about EMS and the folks who have been there for years, they are all going to be retiring in the next couple of years,” he said. “I don’t know who will replace them. These people and the employees like them stayed and worked regardless of the salary. I don’t know if we can attract any new people like them.”

But Commissioner Ernest Lankford expressed concerns over the cost, estimated to be $548,000 annually, of increasing salaries.

“The difference between us the big government is we don’t have a printing press,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make adjustments in services. If you have two cars and can’t afford but one then you have to make adjustments.”

Morris said the budget also includes a $2 per hour pay increase for part-time public safety personnel.

Other budget increases

Morris provided a department-by-department breakdown of other budget increases, and decreases, in the proposed budget. Highlights include:

— A reclassification of animal control officers so they will be interchangeable on all duties.

— A 57.68 percent decrease in the Economic Development budget as a result of having Planning Director David Sudderth also serve as an interim Economic Development Director for one year. Morris said they have also reduced the budget by bringing in-house a majority of the advertising and marketing work that had been contracted out in previous years. He noted that the department would continue its advertising and marketing efforts at the same level as last year.

— A 25 percent increase in elections costs due to possible primary elections that will be held in the spring of 2016.

— A 64 percent increase in Emergency Management, driven by the purchase of a new vehicle using EMPG funds.

— A 40 percent increase in the Fire Marshall office which includes a reclassification of the fire marshal to operate independently of the Sheriff’s Office and also to serve as a back up for EMS services. The increase includes funding for a new truck for the fire marshal to allow him to transport both fire fighting equipment and EMS supplies.

— A 21 percent increase in the Health Department budget which includes higher salaried positions which were approved earlier this year to help combat turnover in the department.

— A 14 percent increase in legal services driven by greater workload.

— A 24 percent increase in the parks budget which continues the $2,000 grant program which was started last year and includes an additional $2,000 a year operating budget for four parks currently being maintained by volunteers. “I want to keep the volunteers running them rather than have it come under the county to have to run it,” said Morris. “This is a relatively cheap price to avoid that.”

— An 18.63 percent increase in Senior Services driven by combining the Walnut Cove Senior Center budget with the Senior Services budget.

— A 7.98 percent increase in the Social Services Administration budget which will help purchase three new vehicles and convert five contract positions to salaried positions. “We are paying a lot more for contract people than for government people,” said Morris. “We also have a lot less flexibility with contract people.”

— A 24.13 percent increase in the Solid Waste budget to purchase a new garbage truck.

— A 26.77 percent increase in the Superior Court budget due to increase in the coast of jury selection software.

— A 27.39 percent increase int he Vehicle Maintenance budget to purchase diagnostic equipment and a freon recycling system to allow staff to work on vehicle without having to take them to a dealership.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

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