After a six-month long process, The Macon County Board of Commissioners approved the 2012/2013 budget during its regularly scheduled June board meeting on Tuesday night. Without having to raise the county-wide tax rates, the commissioners worked with department heads, the finance director, and County Manager Jack Horton to establish a $44,391,193 balanced budget for next year.
Next year's budget, although three percent more than the current year's budget, redirects funds and utilizes the reserved fund balance in order to avoid raising taxes and passing the burden on to Macon County residents.
During a budget work session last month, the county's fire districts went before commissioners and requested individual tax increases to fund improvements ranging from building an additional fire station to better service the airport and Iotla Valley school, to a new fire truck. After careful consideration, the county decided not to approve increases for all the fire districts with the exception of approving a one tenth of one cent increase for the Mountain Valley fire district in order to replace a 41-year-old fire truck. Commissioners expressed their reluctance and regret in not being able to approve the requests of each fire district, but were adamant that in a flat budget year, it came down to justification being the reason for only approving Mountain Valley's request.
“In my opinion, they are the only department that shows a need for a reccurring expense,” said Commissioner and liaison to the fire departments Jimmy Tate. “I believe that all of the requests were important and something we need to take a further look at ... but as far as being able to justify a tax increase, Mountain Valley is the only department that proved a need for that increase.”
Tate, along with the other commissioners explained that they plan to work with each department to assess the needs and explore a way to meet those needs without raising taxes. “Just because we didn't give each department the increase they requested, doesn't mean we don't 100 percent support them. If they need anything at all throughout the year, I encourage them to come before this board and we will do whatever we need to to take care of them.”
Commission Chair Kevin Corbin agreed with Tate and noted that the board plans to explore options of making improvements to the departments. “This is not a no to everything they need,” said Corbin of the board's decision. “This is the response to a flat budget year. If any of the departments find themselves in a crisis, they can come before this board and we will work to solve it. We have always done that.”
The budget also addresses the need for a technology upgrade for the Macon County school district. “With the elimination of ADM [average daily membership] funding for technology by the state, our replacement schedule has grown from a five-year replacement schedule to a nine-year replacement schedule,” said Horton during a budget work session last month. “In addition, in less than two years (2014) the state will require all local school systems to be able to do assessments, and send end of grade reports electronically to Raleigh. In order to meet this critical need now it will require an estimated $1,500,000 in funding specifically for Information Technology.”
In order to meet the school system's technology needs, the budget includes a proposal to seek a low interest (around 1.75 percent short term 54 month) loan in order to immediately address this issue. “The debt will be paid back in yearly fund balance appropriations,” explained Horton. “This would not only solve the immediate problem but preserve the county fund balance in case of emergency. The estimated loan payment of $311,829 is included in this proposed budget. If the economy improves, the county would reserve the right to retire the debt before the end of the term.”
Commissioners also made it a priority to upgrade the public safety departments in the county. The approved budget supports replacing two, four-wheel drive ambulances for Emergency Medical Services as well as six patrol vehicles for the Sheriff's Department.
Commissioners also approved $24,500 in the budget in order to provide the Sheriff’s Department with six in-car cameras for the patrol cars. “I support funding the cameras because it does not just ensure the safety of our citizens during traffic stops, it protects the officers, and will hold both the officers and the citizens accountable for their actions,” said Commissioner Bobby Kuppers.
Sheriff Robbie Holland noted that the cameras can also save the county money in the event of future legal battles. “In a wreck, the cameras are automatically designed to record 30 seconds prior to impact,” explained Holland. “So if an officer was to wreck, it will be recorded for insurance purposes. Also, if a citizen wants to go to court and challenge an officer's decision, the second the blue lights are turned on, the cameras begin recording and can be used as evidence during the court case.”
Next year’s budget also appropriates $42,561 for the salary of one paramedic which will allow the emergency response team to meet the growing demand for full time service.
Additional budget expenses for next year also includes increasing the economic development fund by $3,500 to continue supporting the growth of businesses in the county. The increase in funding will help support the county's incubator facility, which is currently at capacity with new businesses developing strong business models.
Commissioners also voted to approve $8,600 for a part-time secretary in the Soil Conservation Office. “When the economy took a turn a few years ago, we had an employee retire and never filled the position,” said Horton. “Other employees in that office absorbed the clerical responsibilities, but it hinders them from being able to do their job. The department does generate revenue for the county, I think we should approve a part time position of up to 19 hours a week to help lessen the burden in that department.”
Next year's budget also includes a 15 percent local match for an additional full-time driver for the Macon County Transit. The Transit services received 85 percent of the funding from a state grant, so the county agreed to match the grant by providing the additional needed 15 percent in order to expand those services to Maconians.
Commissioners approve incentive for county employees
Although the economy has forced Macon County to stick to a flat budget for next year, commissioners voted to approve giving all full-time county employees an additional 24 hours of leave time next year at the request of Horton. The one time benefit, was supported to show the county's appreciation for county employees.
According to Horton, Macon County currently has 355 employees — down from the 392 they had in 2008. As Commissioner Ronnie Beale noted, with the population of Macon County increasing and the number of employees to do the work decreasing, a heavy burden is placed on each department. “Our employees are working harder, and for the same amount of money,” said Beale. “I would support the additional leave time as a small token of our appreciation for their hard work and dedication to service in Macon County.”
Horton assured commissioners that he has worked with the finance department to rearrange existing funds in next year's budget to cover the cost of the additional leave time. “Without having any impact on the budget, this would give us the opportunity to show our county employees appreciation,” said Horton.
Commissioner Ron Haven said he could not support the additional time off because he believes in the long run, it is going to end up costing the county money. “I can't help but look at this as being a big expense to the county,” said Haven. “If they take three days off work, we are going to have to pay for someone to fill those duties while they are gone. I am proud of our employees and all the work they do and I think it would benefit them more if we have them a raise instead of more time off.”
The additional 24 hours of leave time was approved in a 3-to-1 vote, with Haven opposing.
County renews Economic Development Director's contract
The Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to renew the contract with New South Strategies LLC, which designates Tommy Jenkins as the county's Economic Development Director. Before being contracted by Macon County back in November, Jenkins was the chairman of the AdvantageWest Economic Development group for several years and also served in the North Carolina House of Representatives and the North Carolina State Senate, and has been in the real estate business for more than three decades.
During Tuesday night's meeting, Horton said that through the contacts Jenkins has built during his career, he has made great strides in economic development for the county. Horton mentioned the Economic Development Commission's inaugural BizWeek that Jenkins organized, which featured keynote remarks by Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco. Jenkins has also re-energized interest in the county's incubator facility and is working to expand the facility.
As a result of Jenkins being a contracted employee rather than a county employee, the county does not have to withhold any income tax, unemployment insurance, Social Security, or other withholding requirements as determined by law, nor does the county have to provide benefits or workers compensation coverage to New South. Jenkins will continue to be paid $5,000 per month, including a $100 allowance for cellular telephone and data expenses.