On a 3-2 vote County Commissioners have approved a $45,981,750 budget for fiscal year 2016/17 which calls for no property tax increase, but depends on pulling $2,263,540 from fund balance to balance the budget. Commissioners also unanimously approved a half cent fire tax increase, raising the rate to 7.5 cents.
Commissioners Leon Inman and Rondo Jones voted against the budget which provides no fix for EMS staffing shortages and cuts school current expense funding from the $10,211,763 provided this year to $9,817,340 for next year, leaving the school system with a close to $1 million budget shortfall from their proposed $11,337,935 budget.
Crafting of the final approved budget was led by Commissioners Earnest Lankford and Jimmy Walker.
Lankford started his budget process with the approved 2015-16 budget and added several required county expenses, including increases in insurance premiums and longevity pay and retirement fund costs, as well as items the board had already committed to like a $600,000 grant to help expand broadband coverage in the county.
The final budget also included a $200,000 special appropriation to the school system to provide matching funds for a Golden Leaf grant to provide Chromebooks at South Stokes and West Stokes high schools.
Walker, after finding out that the county would be receiving a one time $250,000 appropriation from the state to help expand broadband, then went through the equipment needs suggested by County Manager Rick Morris adding many of those items back to the budget, including financing the purchase of new ambulance and a number of vehicles for the sheriff’s office.
“We have basically put something back in for every department,” he said.
The budget also includes a recommendation from Morris to codify the existing economic development structure by sharing responsibilities between Arts Council Director Eddy McGee and Planning Director David Sudderth while also creating an economic development technical analyst position.
The final budget does not include any of the manager’s other recommendations including funding for a salary study, hiring of a number of personnel in anticipation of growing demand for county services, or a change to how the county EMS services operate.
Commissioners had approved emergency funding for the EMS department in April after EMS Director Greg Collins told the board that a combination of low salaries, unavoidable leaves of absences and declining numbers of new paramedic candidates meant the county would not be able to cover at least 92 shifts over the next three months.
That emergency funding ends on June 30, but the board did not discuss any other options for how the county should staff its EMS department.
In April, Morris said if the problem was not solved immediately the county would have to take one of the two ambulances serving the King area off line almost immediately.
Commissioners also did not discuss, short of pointing out that state, not county, funding was used for textbooks, any of the comments made by citizens asking for tax increases to fund EMS and schools during the board’s regular meeting on Monday night.
They did discuss the possibility of levying an additional quarter cent sales tax, a move which would have to be approved by county voters in a referendum vote in November.
Walker said the commissioners may have to revisit portions of the budget during the year, but said he was generally happy with the final budget.
“We are holding the line on spending, taxes and growth,” said Commissioner James Booth. “It is a good conservative budget.”
Lankford agreed, saying he was satisfied with it.
Jones said she felt that that the board needed to include tax increases and invest in the county’s future.
“We cannot just turn this county around by waiting for economic development to pop up,” she said. “If we do not have our schools and infrastructure up to par we will not attract businesses. We have to do better than we are doing.”
Board Chair Leon Inman, who voted against the budget, said after it was passed that he would support it.
“This is now my budget and I will embrace it,” Inman said, after the vote. “We may well have done the best we could do.”
“There will never be a perfect budget,” he said. “A balanced budget would be where revenues and expenditures are equal, not taking money from the fund balance. I think some of these things will come back to us before the year is out.
“I truly think the school system has cut their budget this time,” he added. “I don’t think they can operate the entire year on what we are funding them. That will remain to be seen. We still have the EMS problem looming out there.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.