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The Haywood County Board of Commissioners approved the largest budget for the county since 2007 at their June 3 meeting, setting the financial stage for a litany of projects and new developments for county staff in the months to come.

The 2019-20 budget is $87.5 million, an increase over the current year budget of $4.8 million. Rather than raise taxes, the commissioners opted to take money out of its fund balance to make ends meet.

There were no material changes in the budget from the one presented by County Manager Bryant Morehead during the May 23 public hearing to review the document. (See May 22 county budget story.)

The budget voted on this week is based on an anticipated increase in general fund revenue of $3 million, a 3.7-percent boost, and will maintain the current property tax rate of 58.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

This year’s hefty budget increase is largely driven by a $2.8 million price hike to the county employee health plan.

During the meeting, the board agreed that using money accumulated in past years for a rainy day and held in its fund balance was justified given the astronomical increase in price for the county’s employee healthcare plan.

Commissioner Brandon Rogers said the budget was shaping up to be a relatively conservative one until news of the healthcare price spike broke.

“When we set out with this budget in January or February, I had the goal of reducing the tax rate. That’s been one of my goals since I became a commissioner,” Rogers said. “I thought we might be able to do that even with the extra (employee) compensation. But the insurance hit is what has hurt us this go-round.”

Freshman commissioner Mark Pless said he would have liked to see more involvement from the board in cutting items from the budget or reducing expenditures where possible. He commended Morehead and Haywood County Finance Director Julie Davis for their work on the budget, but said he felt the decision-making powers of the commissioners were unnecessarily restricted.

“I thought we could have dug a little deeper, and I wanted to,” Pless said. “We got a lot of information during the process, and a lot of people talked to us to voice the things they would like to see happen, but on Monday there wasn’t a format for us to do anything. I didn’t like that. I think we were supposed to be there for oversight, and we failed in that part.”

Pless acknowledged that the healthcare bump was a major player in the larger-than-average budget, and he also pointed to the dissolution of the Haywood County Rescue Squad as a cost driver this year, after the county approved six new EMS workers to take over convalescent transports for the squad.

This initial outlay is expected to be offset by income generated by providing transport services.

Major unavoidable expenses aside, though, Pless said he felt the board could have been more methodical in trimming the budget down before approving it.

“If we had gone through and really made some cuts — which no one wants to do — and went into it in detail, I would have felt much better about making some concessions,” Pless said. “I don’t have a problem with the budget, but the process to get there could have been better. There wasn’t a ton of input from the commissioners.”

During the hearing to approve the budget, Rogers said he was happy to see some major reductions from early drafts of the budget, despite the fact that the budget had grown overall.

“I’m sure Mr. Morehead and Julie (Davis) will tell you — they’ve been trimming this thing back since early in the year,” he said. “The budget was originally a lot higher, with more people to hire and there were more requests that we’ve had to trim back quite a bit since the beginning.”

Although parts of the budget were unveiled and discussed during public hearings and meetings throughout the course of the budget process, Pless worried that some of the decisions that weren’t openly discussed might be a cause for concern for some taxpayers.

“I hope next year we can have some more open discussion about it. I think we failed the people in some ways,” he said. “I like to talk about these things in open session, because people need to hear what you’re thinking and the concerns you have. It helps. Even if people don’t agree with you, they like for you to have that open dialogue.”

The fiscal year 2019-20 budget was approved unanimously and will take effect July 1.

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