Agencies, departments reeling from county budget cutsWritten by Julia Merchant
Non-profit agencies and county departments in Haywood County are still reeling from massive budget cuts announced by commissioners last week.
The county commissioners cut funding to all non-profits for the rest of the fiscal year, and called for county departments to scale back their budgets by 7 percent.
The cuts will affect everything from arts to recreation to schools. Leaders continued to call emergency meetings this week to grapple with the grim financial picture.
Some non-profit agencies were hit harder than others, like the Haywood County Arts Council. The group receives $15,000 per year from the county, an amount that will be cut by $11,250 in 2009.
“That’s a lot of money — it’s hard to make up that amount,” said Arts Council Director Kay Waldrop, who called an emergency meeting Monday (March 16) to discuss the cuts with her board of directors.
Waldrop said across-the-board cuts to the arts at federal, state and local levels are making it hard to cope.
“It’s the snowball effect,” Waldrop said. “Just one thing you can try to overcome pretty easily, but when your grants are cut, government funding is cut, donations are down and ticket sales are down — when all of those are cut, it’s a double whammy.”
Waldrop said her organization will battle to keep itself afloat.
“We’re fighting to keep the arts alive in our community,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Waynesville Recreation Center is doing its fair share of fighting. The Center receives $70,000 per year in county support, but won’t get any more for the rest of the year.
The county supplement has allowed county residents to pay the same amount as town residents for a recreation center membership despite not paying the taxes that town residents do to support the center.
Now, the recreation center must find some way to make up for the shortfall — and raising rates for county residents is one option on the table.
“We don’t have differential rates right now for the town and county, primarily because Haywood County was giving us money to supplement the difference,” said Rhett Langston, director of recreation for the Town of Waynesville. “We’ve got to come up with the money to supplement the difference some other way. We want to be very, very careful and be as fair as possible.”
Langston said the cut won’t affect programs or classes, but that the recreation center, “will definitely feel it.”
Other non-profits to feel the cut most include the Haywood County Agricultural Activities Center, the low-cost Good Samaritan Clinic, and Haywood Mountain Home.
Feeling the pinch
County departments are also reeling from the round of cuts. Some have struggled to trim their already slim budgets. A week after a county mandate to departments to cut 7 percent of their budget, across-the-board cuts only totaled 3.7 percent, Haywood County Manager David Cotton told commissioners at their Monday (March 16) meeting.
The county has tossed around various ideas to save money, including making employees take mandatory leave or cutting work weeks to 36 hours. The most drastic step will be unavoidable, Cotton said.
“We’re looking at layoffs. That’s where we’re going,” Cotton told commissioners.
Cotton said the county will take a look at the departments that have seen a slowdown in a need for their services as places to cut positions.
Robert Busko, director of the Haywood County Public Library system, said his employees have already volunteered unpaid time off and are bracing for more.
“I’m taking a week off without pay, and most supervisory staff are taking five days without pay,” Busko said. “Whenever you have to have employees take time off without pay, that’s one of the last resorts.”
The budget cuts mean the library system is holding off on developing its collection at a time when library use has increased with people seeking low-cost entertainment. The library constantly reviews it collection, ordering new materials on subjects that may be lacking and replacing out-of-date materials.
“We got a few materials ordered before we had to make the cut, but we’re ordering bestsellers only right now,” Busko said.
“A tremendous hit”
Meanwhile, the school system is figuring out how to cope with budget cuts. The school system has already slashed its budget by 3 percent to comply with a state mandate, and is bracing for additional state cuts that could total up to 9 percent — in addition to the county reductions.
“This last (county) one was totally unexpected,” said Mike Sorrells, chair of the school finance committee and member of the school board. “We are taking a tremendous hit.”
School superintendent Anne Garrett called the cuts, “serious — very serious.”
So far, the school system has been able to avoid layoffs. But various projects will have to be put on hold. One of them is a five-year project to get all student records put on microfilm, since some of the paper copies are old and deteriorating. Other cuts will mostly be supplies and materials to various programs, including vocational, special needs, the Gateway Program for at-risk students, and staff development for substitute teachers, who will not be attending conferences in the near future as a result of the cuts.
School officials expressed concern about the impact the latest cuts have had on the system’s general fund balance, or money not targeted for a specific purpose, which has been slashed in half.
The 2004 floods highlighted the importance of having a fund balance. When the school system was hit with unexpected costs, it had reserves to pull from to pay for upfront repairs before federal and state reimbursements came in.
“If we have some kind of crisis where a major piece of equipment goes down and we don’t have money in the fund balance,” that’s not a desirable situation, said Larry Smith, Chief Financial Officer for Haywood County Schools.
The county’s fund balance has dipped as well, and mandatory budget cuts are a necessary way to get the fund balance back to acceptable levels, said commissioners. Plus, cuts have been felt in private industry for some time, so it was only a matter of time before local governments were forced to follow suit.
“The private sector has been having to cut back for several months, and now the county has to cut back,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.