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After a grueling, five-month ordeal, County Manager Bryant Morehead can soon breathe a sigh of relief — the county budget is nearly finished.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners reviewed Morehead’s recommended budget during its May 20 meeting, ahead of the public hearing scheduled for May 23 to allow for community input on the document.

Many facets of the budget remained unchanged from the commissioners’ last budget work session on May 6.

The county is projected to see a growth of $4.8 million for general fund expenditures under the proposed budget, more than half of which represents a $2.8 million increase in costs associated with the county employee medical plan.

The budget is based on an anticipated increase in General Fund revenue of $3 million, a 3.7 percent growth, and will maintain the current tax rate of 58.5 cents per $100 of assessed value thanks to new construction and growth in the sales tax collected by the county.

At the May 6 work session, Morehead said he hoped to trim the budget down to a point where the county would need to dip into their fund balance for less than $2 million. These projections meet that goal.

The deal on recreation

Notably absent from the budget discussion on Monday night was the plan for county recreation programming. At their last meeting, the commissioners heard proposals to handle county recreation a number of different ways, including the possibility of dissolving Haywood County’s recreation department and partnering with local municipalities to provide those services as well.

In the budget presented to commissioners this week, though, $249,203 is allocated to county recreation programming, an amount in line with funding in years past. Morehead said the board is still in the process of considering all the options, and the budgeted funds are more of a placeholder than a firm commitment to any single route forward.

“The budget is fairly close to what it has been in the past, and that’s because the board still has to review all of its options,” Morehead said. “It really comes back to guaranteeing there’s no decrease in services — we want to make sure it increases, if anything.”

Support our schools

This year marks the first time in 15 years that the Haywood County Schools administration asked county commissioners to increase its funding beyond a standard 2 percent bump they’ve received by default each year. This year’s budget includes an allocation for $16.5 million in school operating costs, a nearly $500,000 increase which represents a 3.1-percent boost.

The extra money the schools asked for this year will be earmarked for laptops used by students, which became necessary following state funding cuts for computers.

Morehead said the decision to fulfill the schools’ requests is a reflection of the commissioners’ priorities and the partnership between the county and the school system.

“The schools are a big priority. We’ve had a lot of good conversations with (Haywood County Schools Superintendent) Dr. Nolte and his staff, and we just really wanted to make that work for them this year,” Morehead said.

The schools also received the full $900,000 requested for capital projects, a $150,000 increase that reflects a need to play catch up on facilities that are overdue for maintenance after funding dropped dramatically in the aftermath of the recession in the late 2000s.

Employee benefits

One of the big priorities for the commissioners in this year’s budget is salary and benefit improvements for county employees.

The plan presented in this year’s budget includes a 2- percent increase for all employees to reflect rising costs of living, along with an additional increase based on individual employees’ base pay rate effective the first of the year. The second increase targets employees at the lower end of the pay schedule, giving the lowest-paid employees a 5 percent raise on Jan. 1.

“We’ve got a lot of employees — more than 100 — making less than $30,000 a year,” Morehead said. “Between the cost of living increase and the 5 percent after the first of the year, I hope that makes a difference in being able to recruit and keep good employees. Everything we do involves serving people in some capacity, and we need to recruit and keep the best people possible to do that.”

Last second changes

A number of budgetary changes have been made in the past two weeks that made closing the financial gap a bit easier for the county.

Last week, the Friends of the Haywood County Animal Shelter informed the county administration that they would be providing $200,000 toward the debt service on a $1 million commitment for a new facility made several years ago, an unexpected infusion of funds that cut down the county’s fund balance appropriation.

The final bid to provide janitorial services to Haywood Community College also freed up some major funds, as the winning bid came in more than $300,000 lower than expected and allowed the county to cut its operating expenses accordingly.

The projected costs associated with voting machines for this year have also been dramatically reduced due to a lack of certified machines available to counties.

“The state only has one type of machine that’s certified right now, and that machine doesn’t have an ADA-compliant unit certified along with it,” Morehead said. “We budgeted, in Fiscal Year 2018 and again in 2019, $800,000 for replacements. But I didn’t see how we could tie up $800,000 of county funds without certification from the state.”

Those machines will need to be purchased at some point in the future, but the county has passed a resolution requesting an extension on the deadline to purchase new equipment and the $800,000 was cut from the budget until there is closure on the issue.

The big picture

As the dust begins to settle, the commissioners have expressed their support for the proposed budget.

Despite numerous difficult decisions, Chairman Kevin Ensley said he felt the budget does a good job of keeping the county on the right track financially and will help improve services and retain quality employees in the coming year.

“If it wasn’t for the medical plan increase, it wouldn’t have been so painful. I think the staff has done a good job of juggling some of these costs despite that surprise,” Ensley said. “Everything else seems to work out pretty well.”

Ensley commended Morehead in particular on his work on this year’s budget, the first he’s had to tackle since he started as county manager in October 2018.

“I think he’s had a lot of good ideas, fresh ideas. He’s worked really well with the staff,” Ensley said. “It’s been really refreshing, and the staff has been really complimentary of the work he’s done.”

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