In keeping with the goal of open, bi-partisan communication for the people of Macon County, commissioners held their mid-year review retreat last Saturday. The meeting, which is held midway through the fiscal year (which runs from July 1-June 30) is intended to evaluate the county's to-date progress and look toward planning for the upcoming year.
County manager Jack Horton began the meeting by giving commissioners a brief summary of on-going and new projects in the county. Horton noted that the upgrade to the water and sewer system, a project that has taken more than a decade since it began, is nearly complete, and other projects such as renovations to the Highlands School are just about to begin. “There are several projects both new and old that the county has taken on,” said Horton. “Regardless of the project, these things are necessary improvements to the infrastructure of our county.”
The first order of new business tackled by the board was establishing a tentative schedule for the 2013/2014 budget calendar. Macon County Commissioners have been diligent over the years getting an early start on the budget in order to ensure that the county's finances are in order and the budget is balanced.
Under the direction of Horton and the county's finance department, led by Finance Director Lori Hall, in previous years commissioners have been able to approve a balanced budget, well before the state's deadline. While Horton remained optimistic about balancing the budget again in the upcoming year, he warned commissioners about the uncertainty of financing from the state. “We need to get working on our budget because we really have no idea what is going to happen in Raleigh,” said Horton.
The county manager cited conversations with local officials around the state that would lead counties to expect drastic cuts in departments such as funding for education.
“We just don't know what to expect for later this year,” he said. “We can try to plan for continued cuts to education that we have experienced in the past, such as the state mandated reversion, which was nearly $1.4 million this year, but we really don't know what cuts to expect or how much those cuts are going to be.”
The budget calendar outlines a schedule that will put county department heads holding their first meetings for the upcoming year on Feb. 15. During those meetings, department heads will meet with their respective departments to discuss projected budgets. Those meetings will result in an outline of what commissioners will be facing when they get deeper into the budget planning process. Once each department has established a budget for the upcoming year, those budgets are to be submitted to the county manager by March 25. After meeting with department heads to iron out final details, Horton is expected to present the 2013/2014 budget to commissioners during their regularly scheduled monthly meeting on May 14.
The budget will then be made available to the public and a public hearing on the budget is tentatively scheduled for June 11, to allow public input on the budget process. Ideally, Horton would like to have the county's budget completely finished and adopted by June 18, way ahead of the state's deadline.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale noted that the budget dates may need to be adjusted, based on the outcome of legislation at the state level. “The folks in Raleigh are on the fast track and are expected to get things done pretty quick when they convene later this month,” said Beale. “We may have to switch around some of these dates based on what gets handed down from them.”
With the uncertainty from the state level, the commissioners agreed to move forward with the possibility of having to adjust things in the coming months.
Commissioner Jimmy Tate brought to the attention of the board some inequalities in the board of commissioners election process. According to Tate, he and Commissioner Ron Haven have discussed their concerns with the current election process based on the three districts in the county.
Currently, Macon County is split into three districts, District I- Highlands, District II- Franklin and District III- Nantahala. Both District I and District III have one elected representative, and District II is allocated three. Representatives are elected to staggered four-year terms. The way the terms are currently staggered, representatives in both District I and District III are only given the opportunity to run for office every four years, while those vying for a seat in District II are eligible to run in two-year increments.
Tate used this past election as an example. Commissioner Kevin Corbin, who was reelected in November, is one of the three sitting board members representing District II.
“For example, Kevin, if you had lost in November, because the seats for District II are staggered, when the other seat comes up for election in two years, you would be able to run again for the newly opened seats, whereas if I would have lost, as the only representative for Highlands, I would have to wait four years until the seat opens back up.”
Commissioners are currently elected by majority of votes cast from voters in all districts. While they may be running for one district, they can procure votes in any district in the county. Commissioners discussed possible changes to correct the irregularity ranging from Haven’s suggestion of having five separate districts for each commissioner to Tate’s suggestion of evaluating the process and altering the staggered terms.
Horton explained that any decision regarding the election process and changes to the process must be done at the state level.
Commissioner Paul Higdon stated that he believes the irregularity is a pressing issue and it is imperative that the board begin looking at possible solutions as soon as possible.