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Wednesday, 21 June 2017 14:14

Swain budget hearing set for June 22

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Swain County commissioners will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 22, to hear feedback from the community prior to passing a proposed $15.6 million budget for 2017-18.

This year’s barebones budget does not include any funding for capital projects, which is why it’s down from last year’s $17.3 million budget. While no big investments are going to be made in the next fiscal year, the county will be able to maintain the same property tax rate of 36 cents per $100 of assessed value. 

In his budget message to commissioners, County Manager Kevin King called the proposed documents “one of the leanest budgets in the region.”

“The budget process is never simple or easy. It takes time, effort and the necessary ability to make hard choices and sometimes unpopular recommendations,” King said. “This year has been increasingly difficult due to the impact of reduced revenues in the Department of Social Services’ child welfare program. We have and will continue to see reduced funds from the federal and state sources in the next fiscal year. We continue to monitor the reimbursement rates for programs such as the Emergency Medical Services and the In-Home Aide program for decreased revenue from Medicaid.”

This year the Swain County commissioners created a personnel committee to study and recommend a plan that will help Swain County retain employees. Retention has been a major problem in certain departments, including the sheriff’s office and the health department, due to a low pay scale. Sheriff Curtis Cochran has complained in the past about hiring and training deputies only to have them leave for a higher-paying position in a neighboring county. 

The committee worked over several months to come up with a plan to meet the current needs of the organization, which is to recruit and retain employees. While the committee made several recommendations for the 2017-18 fiscal year, King said budget constraints would not allow for the entire plan to be implemented this year. 

“When looking over the anticipated revenue for next fiscal year, I could not recommend to the board the entire committee’s proposal,” he said.  

This budget proposal does include a 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment for all employees, an expansion of the longevity program to include employees that have five years of service or more and a $500 per person yearly funding of the health insurance program. 

The longevity program will be increased by $1,000 for each category of years of service in addition to adding a new employee group of five to nine years to the eligibility requirements. Employees with five to nine years of service will now receive $1,000. 

Swain County Schools will not see an increase in local funding from the county despite an impassioned plea and presentation to commissioners last month. The school system is lobbying for changes to certain state and federal funding formulas to ensure Swain gets its fair share of school funding, but also asked commissioners to consider increasing its operational contributions.

School administrators said the school system needs $1.3 million from the county to cover local expenses — that includes $575,000 for utilities, $285,000 for maintenance costs and $46,000 for salaries and benefits for maintenance employees.

The county did up its contribution to the schools by $100,000 last year, bringing the total to $850,000, but King said the county wasn’t able to increase school spending this year. 

The school system also has more than $700,000 worth of capital improvement needs that will go partially unfunded this year. Between the county’s contribution of $160,000 for capital and another $145,000 coming out of the schools’ reserve fund, about $300,000 worth of capital projects will get funded. 

Looking at revenues, all signs indicate an improving economy in Swain County. 

Sales tax revenue increased from $1.1 million last year to $1.24 million this year. Property tax revenue is up from $5.19 million last year to $5.24 million this year. Room occupancy tax increased from $800,000 last year to $900,000 this year.  

The one big change happening in Swain County government this year is moving some county offices as well as the school administrative offices and the Bryson City Police Department into the federal building on Main Street. The county was finally able to acquire the federal building as is at no cost after leasing space in the building for years. Now that the county has ownership, some renovation work will begin to convert the heating system from boilers to natural gas. 

King said the county could now use the $30,000 a year it spent on the lease to make the needed improvements in the coming months. The county will also receive some revenue from leasing space in the building to the extension services office and the employment security commission.

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