When Haywood County was booming in the early 2000s, houses were selling like hotcakes, there wasn’t a piece of land that wasn’t being eyed for development and the building industry was at its highest in recent memory.
That came to an abrupt halt when the subprime mortgage scandal broke and those who had been lent large amounts of money to buy a home without adequate collateral faced financial crisis. Their crisis mushroomed and plunged the nation into the Great Recession. Hard times were slower in reaching Haywood, but lingered longer, too.
During that period, population and the birth rate shrank, leading to the enrollment decline that eventually led to the closure of Central Elementary School. Unemployment rates reached 12 percent, tourism dwindled and the business districts across the county looked like ghost towns during the middle of the week.
To match the changed economic climate, the Haywood County budget went from its highest ever in 2007 at $88.4 million down to $73.5 million in 2010 as the county tightened its belt to weather the storm.
As the economy changed, the county budget grew to $83.5 million in 2012 and then dropped to between $79 million and $81 million as the county began reaping the benefits of the economic recovery.
This year’s $87.5 million budget is up by nearly $5 million, partly because the commissioners were faced with a huge hike in health plan costs ($2.8 million) and opted to use funds saved in past years to help cover that unexpected increase, along with costs to make other needed upgrades in county services.
Part of the larger budget was financed by extra tax dollars expected because of the county’s recent growth ($3 million.)
What Haywood County residents can glean from their commissioners’ hard work is better knowledge of their budget priorities. Education is a priority, which is reflected in a 3.1 percent increase in funding; county employees will see a boost to salaries in a move to retain knowledgeable workers in a time when there are plenty of jobs that pay more; a full body scanner for the jail should reduce the amount of drugs smuggled in; and there will be a handful of new positions to enhance services to taxpayers.
It is worth noting that, for the first time in the county’s history, the county commission includes four Republicans and one Democrat. Haywood’s Democratic stronghold broke for this first time in 2018 when Republicans Tom Long and Mark Pless joined the board, defeating one incumbent and filling a the Democratic seat of retiring Bill Upton.
During their campaigns, there was plenty of talk about budgets and taxes — talk that prompted some local government aficionados to silently wonder how such talk would square with the reality of providing services required by law and appreciated by taxpayers.
It turns out that at the local level, party differences don’t seem to make much difference.
When issues are considered at the county level, doing the right thing is much easier than holding to ideological principles or party lines. It’s too bad such cooperation can’t work its way up the ladder.