Commissioners question proposed budget

By Nicholas Elmes -

As the Stokes County Board of Commissioners begins the final work on the county’s proposed 2016-17 budget, several members of the board are questioning the county manager’s recommendations.

The proposed $47,073,728 budget would raise both property and fire taxes, pull $2,297,018 from the county’s fund balance, and reduce current expense funding for county schools.

“The consensus of this board was we did not want to go up on taxes,” Commissioner Earnest Lankford said in a budget meeting last week. “The manager also asked about the percentage to leave in fund balance and that was between 20 and 25 percent. Now here comes a budget presented to us with an almost $3 million increase without the revenue. If you don’t have the revenue then you can’t ride the train.”

Lankford argued that the proposed budget directed more revenue to specific departments, like EMS services where County Manager Rick Morris is proposing as shift change to help the county attract more badly needed paramedics.

“You have to step back and ask how much can you afford,” said Lankford. “Being a rural county, we can’t sustain to continue this pattern. It is just not going to work. You can’t put all of the burden on the back of taxpayers.”

Commissioner James Booth agreed, noting that the county had provided a pay-grade increase to Sheriff’s Office and EMS personnel last year.

Commissioner Jimmy Walker, who supported a larger-than-ultimately-agreed-upon tax increase last year, said he as well was worried about the proposed budget.

“As a county we are probably as financially challenged as we have been in many years,” he said. “My preference is if there is any possible way to reduce the amount coming out of fund balance and not have a tax increase then I will listen with an open mind. I will be very interested in any suggestions in that direction.

“I do feel that this is in many ways more budget than we can afford,” he added, noting that the county might need to consider this year as more of an emergency budget which could require some difficult cuts. “At some point we have to ask ourselves some very difficult questions. We have to make some changes. We are facing some very tough financial decisions as far as our county and it cannot all be business as usual”

Walker noted that he did not want to see county residents faced with tax increases multiple years in a row, saying he expected that the county would have to do a larger tax increase next year.

Commissioner Ronda Jones noted that the county was still facing revenue shortfalls and big questions over how much it might cost to keep the county hospital operating.

“My request is that we keep doing what we have to do to keep our county running effectively,” she said. “I fear that we are going to come up really short of what we need to do if we do not do something. I do not know what else we can cut.”

Morris said there were only three departments that could be cut and still adhere to the county’s state mandated responsibilities.

“If you want to cut departments, you could cut what we do with the arts council, you can cut the economic development department and could cut some in solid waste,” he said, underlining that he did not recommend any of those cuts. “Everything else, your statutes tell you that you have to do it.”

Board Chair Leon Inman has not indicated how he would vote on the proposed budget.

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

By Nicholas Elmes

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