With only nine days left to finalize a budget, county commissioners only used 45 minutes of a scheduled three hour meeting Tuesday reviewing a grim revenue picture before being forced to recess the meeting after none of the four commissioners present were willing to offer plans for how to cut the proposed budget to prevent a tax increase next year.
Three commissioners, the number needed to pass a final budget, have agreed that they do not want to see any property tax increase next year. But when asked what cuts they would like to make to the budget on Tuesday, Commissioners James Booth and Earnest Lankford had no answers. Commissioner Jimmy Walker, the third commissioner pushing to avoid a tax increase, was not present at the meeting.
“I want to stabilize our county, and I don’t think we can do that by cutting,” said Commissioner Ronda Jones. “Those commissioners who do not want a tax increase are the ones who are going to have to suggest the cuts.
“If we don’t invest in ourselves, we will find ourselves in this same conversation year after year,” she added.
Board Chair Leon Inman repeatedly asked for suggestions for cuts, noting that the board should not make any final decision until all members were present.
“You could cut entire departments, and not save much over $100,000,” said Inman. “So we are going to have to hit the recommendation the manager has made.”
Without a tax increase, and including some other adjustments like reducing the projected sales tax from Walmart and providing an additional $200,000 for the school system to match a grant which will provide Chromebooks to South Stokes and West Stokes students, Inman said the existing budget would require the county to pull $3.2 million from its fund balance next year.
Doing so would push the fund balance to only 20 percent of annual operating costs in a year where county leaders have no idea how much keeping the county hospital open may cost taxpayers.
“Next year you would have to have some significant revenue increases to stay anywhere near that number,” said Inman.
Walker, during a budget meeting on Monday, agreed.
“Whether we actually change the tax rate or not, there is a substantial tax increase in this budget,” he said. “There was a substantial tax increase in last year’s budget and two cents did very little to change the situation. Two cents would do very little to change the situation this year.
“Commissioner Jones and I would have preferred to have a higher tax increase last year, possibly a five or six cent increase, because it would have given us more maneuvering room this year,” he added. “If things go the way they appear to be going through next year we are looking at a nine to 10 cent tax adjustment. That is unless we change our expenses or start getting significantly more revenues.”
Walker said he would rather face a larger tax increase next year than to burden the county residents with tax increases three years in a row.
“We need to trim our expenses as much as we can,” he said.
Only one commissioner, Lankford, has stated how they would like to deal with the current EMS crisis.
Lankford said he would like to see the EMS continue to work on a 24/48 shift, instead of the proposed 24/72 shift schedule presented by the county manager.
County Manager Rick Morris told the board they had evaluated other ways to deal with the department’s staffing issues, including increasing salaries or overtime pay, but that those other options would cost as much a shift schedule change.
Commissioners have unanimously agreed to provide a one-time special funding supplement to the school system for $200,000 to match a Golden Leaf grant to provide Chromebooks for high school students.
They did not agree to provide $73,000 in additional funding to hire a technology coordinator also required by the grant.
No other increases in school funding have been suggested by commissioners.
Cost of crafting a budget
So far this year the county has spent approximately $9,643.40 in salaries for county commissioners to discuss the budget. That figure does not include the cost of staff time in preparing the budget, nor the cost of supplies used during the process.
The board has held 10 regular meetings on the budget and, as of Thursday, two recessed meetings. Each commissioner is paid $181.47 for each regular meeting and $73.23 for recessed meetings. The Board Chair is paid $200.04 for each regular meeting and $80.65 for each recess meeting.
Two commissioners, Ronda Jones and Jimmy Walker, have each missed one regular budget meeting so far this year.
The board is expected to hold another recess meeting on Monday, which would cost the county an additional $373.57.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.