While keeping a nervous eye on Raleigh and Washington, the Macon County Board of Commissioners continues negotiations on its own fiscal plans with hopes that a status quo budget for fiscal year 2011-2012 will be adequate to maintain all essential services in the county without need of a tax hike.
The board has met numerous times over the past few weeks to hear from various heads of agencies and departments in the county and to make adjustments to the county manager’s budget proposal which was presented on May 10. At a public hearing on the budget at the county courthouse on Tuesday night, no members of the public elected to speak.
Last week, the board looked at budget requests from the public school system, the Department of Public Health, and the Sheriff's Office. Two county fire departments, Nantahala and Cullasaja, both approached the board requesting millage rate increases in their districts.
Schools ask for return to status quo
At a budget meeting last Thursday, Macon County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Dan Brigman, presented a budget for the county's portion of education funding in the district which includes $500,000 for capital outlay and approximately $6.9 million for current expenses, returning it to 2008-2009 levels. The budget reinstates the two percent teachers’ supplement that was cut from the current year’s budget. Capital outlay was also zeroed out in the current year’s budget.
Brigman noted that the school budget builds in an anticipated state reduction of 10 percent, though the precise reduction is still unknown. In addition, the school system is preparing to lose federal Stimulus and Stabilization funds. To fill these gaps, the budget utilizes $1.5 million in unappropriated reserve funds, the equivalent of nearly half of the school system’s current fund balance.
Commissioner Bob Kuppers, liaison to the school boar, noted that the county manager’s recommended current expense budget for the school system was capped at $6.7 million, $200,000 less than the request of the board. “Assuming that factored into this budget ... does that require losses in the classroom?” he asked.
Due to uncertainty on the state level, Brigman replied that ultimately the county will have to wait and see. He noted however that while expenses for the upcoming fiscal year may be covered with the schools’ reserve fund balance, the system is already predicting shortages for 2012-2013 when the fund balance will be exhausted and all temporary federal funds will have expired.
He explained that the district has been absorbing positions through attrition and retirements for the past two years and so far has avoided layoffs. However, the district has put a hold on 14 essential classroom positions pending the outcome the state budget. “Our goal is to keep people employed, to retain as many people as we can, and not contribute to the county’s unemployment rate.
On top of the pending cuts, there is legislation proposed to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 which would add even greater burden on the district, Brigman noted. “We’re getting hit on both ends,” said Brigman. “It’s a very challenging situation. Public education in North Carolina is under attack.”
Health Department wary of state/fed changes
Director of the Macon County Department of Public Health, Jim Bruckner, also expressed deep concerns over state and federal legislation that may impact services to the county’s residents. Like the school system, Bruckner noted that there are at least two essential positions that the department is waiting to fill pending the outcome of the current budget negotiations.
Bruckner told the board that as of now, the department has not been forces to end any of the services offered by the county, but he emphasized that both revenue and costs of the programs are difficult to predict. “One of the challenges we have is we have to deal with who comes in our door today,” said Bruckner, noting that in a time of economic recession demand for services is on the rise.
Fire departments request tax increase
Both the Nantahala and the Cullasaja fire departments requested approval for millage rate increases of properties in their service areas.
Commissioners agreed on a half-cent per $100 millage rate increase for the Nantahala district which will go towards the purchase of two new fire engines and allow the opening of a second substation in the area. Chief Brian Bateman explained that the increased capacity will help achieve an improved insurance rating for residents in the Nantahala fire district. The half-cent rate increase was a reduction from Bateman’s initial proposal of a one-cent increase.
Cullasaja VFD also requested a half-cent rate increase in their district for a replacement engine, new equipment and training. After extensive discussion, the board agreed to the increase, though many commissioners expressed reservations. However, after the public hearing on Tuesday, Commissioner Beale reported that the fire department had adjusted its proposed budget and was withdrawing its request.
Sheriff’s Office sticks to recommended budget
“We’re very proud of the fact that ... we have never come back mid-stride to ask for any amount of money ... but we need to leave this meeting tonight ... with the understanding that this might be the year that we get stuck having to do that.” —Sheriff Robbie Holland
The budget request presented by Sheriff Robbie Holland, though within the limits recommended by County Manager Jack Horton, represented an increase of 2.7 percent from fiscal year 2010-2011 budget request. However, it is still four percent less than the 2009-2010 budget. Holland attributed this rise to the minimal control the department has over the mental health system in the county, particularly medical expenses and personnel hours related to involuntary commitments for which the sheriff’s office is required to take responsibility.
Due to recent changes in state policy, the department has seen an unprecedented increase in such commitments which incur responsibility for transport, custody and care by department personnel. Major Andy Shields of the Sheriff’s Office projected an increase of 72 percent in commitments for the current year.
Holland also noted concern over proposed legislation aimed at relieving state prison system costs by shifting responsibility to local jails. “We’re going to try really hard to make do with the budget that you’ve recommended,” Holland said, addressing County Manager Horton. “We’re very proud of the fact that since we took office eight years ago, we have never come back mid-stride to ask for any amount of money. But we need to leave this meeting tonight, unfortunately, with the understanding that this might be the year that we get stuck having to do that.”
Board consensus seems strong
With two new members, a newly appointed chairman, and a new balance of power shifted in favor of fiscal conservatives, the county board began the year with some tension and controversy. However, by all appearances, the recent budget negotiations have gone smoothly. At Tuesday’s meeting, Chairman Brian McClellan stated as much.
“I appreciate all four of the commissioners for working together with me,” McClellan said. “We don’t always agree on everything, but we work to try and find consensus, and that’s what I believe we’ve done.”
McClellan noted that this is the fourth year in a row that the county’s budget will have gone down slightly from the previous year’s actual budget.
The board thanked the county manager and finance officer Evelyn Southard for their work on the budget.
Commissioner Kevin Corbin noted that the board had determined to not put any additional tax burden on Macon County residents this year and instead to utilize reserve funds where necessary to balance the budget. “I think this a conservative budget, and I think it is one that well serves the citizens of Macon County,” he said.
Vice-Chair Bob Kuppers thanked the department heads for their hard work and cooperation in the budget process. He noted that some departments in the county have shown “enormous flexibility” even though their budgets are uncertain due to potential cuts at state and federal levels. “They still don’t really know where their pain is going to come from; all they know is that it’s coming,” he remarked. “We know that it ain’t over till it’s over.”
Commissioner Ron Haven noted that four out of five commissioners on the board are business owners. “Running a business is a little like what you are doing as department heads, and it’s tough right now,” he said.