Displaying items by tag: budget cuts

Marty Stamey, like any county manager, takes pride in crafting a water-tight budget: one that squares up the minutia of how many reams of computer paper and tanks of gas county employees will use on one side of the ledger with property tax and sales tax flowing in on the other.

But no matter how persnickety Stamey is in his forecasts, there is one irksome line that’s simply a roll of the dice. So he just crosses his fingers, gives it his best guess and hopes like heck a jail inmate won’t need open heart surgery.

Whether it’s a simple cavity or a serious brain aneurism, any medical ailment that befalls inmates while awaiting trial lands on the county’s tab. Even medications inmates are on, whether its insulin for diabetes or blood pressure medicine, are filled courtesy of Haywood County taxpayers.

Haywood isn’t alone. All counties are saddled with what Stamey called perhaps the “most unpredictable” area of the budget.

The county will spend around $230,000 in medical costs for inmates in the current budget year. Most of that is for hospital bills and visits to specialists, for everything from X-rays to dental work. But, the sum also includes an in-house nurse, a retainer for an on-call doctor and prescription meds.

The costs and hassle of managing inmates’ medical needs has become so complicated, however, the county has decided to outsource the job to a private firm.

The firm, Southern Health Partners, manages medical care for inmates at 190 jails and prisons in 13 states. Half of North Carolina’s 100 counties contract with the firm.

Haywood County will pay the company $134,000 a year for basic medical care to inmates. The contract isn’t all-inclusive, however. It mostly includes nurse and physician services provided at the jail, such as health assessments and dispensing daily medications taken by inmates.

The fee only covers the first $30,000 in hospital bills, visits to specialists and medications. Anything more than that, the county will still have to pay for.

The county has earmarked another $70,000 in its budget for that, so when it comes to the total cost of providing medical care for inmates, the county is budgeting $205,000 —compared to $234,000 now — a small net savings.

Regardless, it’s worth it simply not to deal with it, said Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles.

“Even if it is a wash or is a little bit more, it is still a good deal in the long run,” Suttles said.

The county still faces a potential legal liability if something goes wrong with the medical care provided to an inmate. The county currently faces a lawsuit from the family of a female inmate who died. She was rushed to the hospital after collapsing, but the family blames the jail for not paying closer attention to her condition and failing to take action sooner.

Contracting with a firm to handle medical care won’t absolve the county from being targeted by such suits, but the firm would at least be named in the suit along with the county as a co-defendant.

“The whole point of this is to get our risk down and our performance up,” said Julie Davis, the county finance officer.

The firm should deliver a higher standard of medical care and expertise. That will hopefully translate to fewer trips to the hospital as the staff brought in by the firm will be able to more confidently handle health care needs.

Stamey said the firm will do a better job determining when an inmate truly needs to go to the hospital.

“Sometimes they probably don’t need to go, but to be on the safe side, we probably send them on to the hospital,” Suttles said.

Jailers also will get training on how to handle medical needs when faced with them.

There could be other hidden savings as well. Any inmate going for medical care has to be accompanied 24-7 by a deputy. When a deputy is taken off his regular assignment to escort an inmate to the hospital, a back-up deputy is called in to cover the hole.

“That’s running me into money,” Suttles said. “I think in the long run it’s going to save.”

Being able to provide more health care at the jail instead of sending the inmates out for care is where the $30,000 in hoped-for savings would come in. Also, helping to save money on hospital bills for inmates is a new health care network for jails, formed under the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

Currently, the county has to pay the out-of-pocket rate when taking inmates to the hospital or to see specialists. Under the Inmate Medical Costs Management Plan through the state sheriffs’ association, the county would be eligible for a discounted rate, much like the discounted rate insurance companies are able to negotiate.

There’s roughly 75 inmates bunked up in Haywood’s jail any given night. Some are there serving short sentences, like a week-long stint for DUI convictions. But, most have only been charged with a crime and are still awaiting trial.

If convicted, they are sent off to state prison to serve their time and are no longer a health care liability for the county. If they aren’t violent or considered a flight risk, and they get out on bond while awaiting trial, they likewise aren’t the county’s problem.

It seems to Suttles like more inmates than ever are on medications now or have health problems. Buncombe, Transylvania, Henderson and McDowell counties all contract with the same firm.

When the maintenance director for Haywood County Schools received news that a transformer at Pisgah High School stopped working last Thursday, it seemed apropos given the grim portrait of the schools’ budget he and other education officials would paint for county commissioners later that day.

The school system has made a plea to county commissioners to more than triple what it’s getting now for maintenance, repairs and building upkeep. While a sizeable increase, the school system has been barely scraping by in recent years. It’s capital budget was slashed by two-thirds when the recession hit four years ago.

This year, the school system says it needs its former funding levels restored — plus some — to help dig itself out of the maintenance backlog. It needs $839,000, including such critical things as a new bus, roof replacements and emergency sidewalk repairs.

“Most of what we need there is for emergency things that seem to always come up,” said Tracy Hargrove, maintenance director for Haywood County schools.

One of those emergency needs is the $20,000 transformer that failed at Pisgah High School — a cost that the school system had hoped to delay until the next fiscal year.

“We have several projects that are relatively critical that we have been kicking down the road a little bit,” Hargrove said.

Not to mention, the county’s 22 buses are wearing down as the numbers on the odometer quickly tick higher and higher. Bus drivers are sometimes forced to swap vehicles if classes are scheduled to take a field trip as some of the buses fair better than others.

And, next year, schools are projected to receive 53 percent less funding for capital projects than they did in 2008, Hargrove said.

The school system is also dealing with a depleting fund balance, the amount of money it has left at the end of the year that essentially makes up its savings account.

The school system ended the 2010-2011 fiscal year with a balance of $4.2 million. But, funding cuts have since drained that reserve. Officials estimated that the schools will only have anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million leftover at the end of the next fiscal year.

“It will only last a year or so and then we’re in trouble,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.

Like other departments in the county, schools have been forced to prioritize renovations and improvements and make cuts where they can.

During a meeting with county commissioners last week, Haywood County Schools asked for a total of $14.33 million from the county for the next fiscal year — a more than $1.7 million increase compared to this year. That includes the increase to its building maintenance and repair fund, plus funding for classroom operations, such as teacher salaries.

“I feel like we were very deliberate (when laying out the budget),” said Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools.

 

Squeezed at both ends

The schools are looking to the county to help make up funding shortfalls at the state and federal level. The state has engaged in a odd funding formula, where it allocates money to schools and then asks for some of it back during the year, called a “reversion.” Reversions are intended for austere budget emergencies, but have become a standard annual practice by the state.

“That is why it is disingenuous,” Mark Swanger, chairman of the board of commissioners, said of the state’s contribution to education.

Education officials have been taking the bulls by the horns when they can because they don’t know what funding they will receive the following year or how much they will have to revert back to the state.

“It’s like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.

Part of the state’s allocation to schools comes from lottery money. The money is supposed to supplement the schools’ budgets, but many officials have stated that it only supplants funds that the schools should be receiving anyway.

“We haven’t gotten any additional funding since the lottery started,” Nolte said.

Meanwhile, commercials are advertising that lottery money is helping pay for teachers’ salaries. A fact that school officials say is simply not true.

In addition to the loss in federal and state funds, county governments will have to pay for an additional five school days to comply with an unfunded state mandate that increase the number of days from 180 to 185.

“Five days, we have to fund out of our local budget,” Garrett said.

Commissioners did not indicate where they stand on the schools’ request, but will be revisiting the issue soon as the budget for the coming fiscal year is finalized.

Haywood Community College officials have requested an additional $380,000 in county funding this year — all of which would help pay for renovations and new construction on campus.

Similarly to Haywood County Schools, the college has been strapped by recession-drive county budget cuts and now wants its funding restored to past levels. College leaders said the extra money is necessary to cover “projects that can’t wait any longer.”

Campus buildings continue to deteriorate because of a decline in funding that every county department experienced when the economy went sour, school officials said. Historically, HCC received around $500,000 for capital projects, maintenance and upkeep from the county. This year, it received $120,000.

So, the community college is hedging its bets by asking for money for the school’s most pressing projects rather than presenting the entire kitchen sink — which for this year alone includes $2.6 million in improvements.

“We realize we are not going to come in here and ask for $2.6 million,” said Bill Dechant, director of campus development.

College officials met with commissioners last week to present their budget requests.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Mark Swanger asked school officials what other sources of funding they receive for capital improvements.

HCC receives energy rebate funds, grant funding and has saved or reallocated a small portion of its operating funds, Dechant said.

Among HCC’s most important projects is a makeover of the 3300 building, which is currently a machine shop. The structure, which will house classrooms and labs for the natural resources department, needs roof repairs as well as a new entrance.

“Our number one priority … is renovation to our 3300 building,” Dechant said. “Our entrance is very similar to a phone booth.”

There are also sections of cracked pavement and potholes that need repair, an outdated phone system, roof repairs for at least four other buildings, HVAC upgrades, stormwater and sewer line repairs, a new Timbersports facility and demolition of the old sawmill.

It also wants to implement an emergency response system. Emergency alert systems have become a commonplace part of college life ever since the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007 as administrators want avoid a potentially catastrophic situation.

“There isn’t a way to reach everyone on campus,” Dechant said.

HCC also plans to tear down the sawmill, which originally sat on the outskirts of campus but has become more centrally located as the college has expanded.

“It’s not the kind of eyesore we need,” Dechant said.

Parts of the demolished structure will be sold for scraps.

Despite rumors that cuts at Tuscola High School in Waynesville could reduce the number of advanced courses, academically gifted students will have just as many courses to chose from next school year.

Tuscola will lose five teaching positions, which is likely what fueled the buzz among students that fewer honors courses would be offered. Parents mounted a campaign imploring the school not to cut the number of upper level classes.

School administrators say this was never the case, however.

“I think there has been some misinformation, and it just spread like wildfire,” said Stephanie Goodwin, an assistant principal at Tuscola.

To combat the rumors, the school even scheduled a mass pre-recorded phone call to parents. Robocalls are usually used by the school system to share information on everything from snow days to school-wide testing. This one assured parents there would be no cuts to advanced course offerings next year.

Kim Turpin was among the parents who voiced concerns after hearing the school was reassessing both the number and variety of upper level courses it offered. Her daughter is eyeing Stanford but to get in she would need plenty of Advanced Placement courses — essentially university-level courses that count toward the students’ college course credits.

“If you have smart kids, why wouldn’t you feed your smart kids?” asked Turpin. “They need to provide courses so they can go out in the world and be competitive.

Turpin said it is also important for the overall reputation of the school system.

“Anyone you are wanting to attract as a professional in your community, they are going to be looking at your school system,” Turpin said.

Tuscola is offering Advanced Placement, or AP courses, in four areas this year. Next school year, two new subjects will be added — so in essence there are more AP courses being offered next year, both in the variety and sheer number.

Every January, Tuscola High School surveys students to see what AP courses they are interested in for the coming school year. The line-up is built accordingly.

“Student interest drives our schedule for those upper classes,” Goodwin said. “The only way we reduce the number is if we don’t have student interest.”

Unfortunately, if there aren’t enough students interested in a particular AP course to comprise a full class, the school can’t offer it.

“There has been a reduction of funds the last two or three years in the public schools and you have to get the most bang for your buck,” said Danny Miller, the high school curriculum supervisor for Haywood County Schools. “If you had only five or six kids interested in a course, whether it is AP or say business law, it is hard to take a teacher’s block of time and dedicate it to that.”

That is the case with some AP courses, such as AP Physics and AP World History, which only have a handful of students express interest each year, so the course is offered online only.

Haywood County has roughly 2,000 students at its two high schools. While Tuscola High School historically has been larger than Pisgah, reallocation in recent years has led to a reduction in the number of students at Tuscola and an increase at Pisgah. That in turn led to Tuscola needing fewer teachers.

“Our class sizes will be larger next year,” said Tuscola Principal Dale McDonald.

The teachers taken away from Tuscola have not been added to Pisgah, however.

Despite the loss of teachers in the schools, students won’t be left without enough classes to fill their school day.

“Even with the massive cuts, we’ve had I can’t imagine that high-performing students won’t have plenty of honors or AP course offerings,” Bill Nolte, the assistant superintendant of Haywood County Schools, said. “The capacity to offer the courses has not changed.”

The students still have to be taught, and so a teacher standing in front of a particular class can just as easily teach an honors curriculum for an allotted class, according to Nolte.

While the number and variety of AP classes are based on student interest, the school also vets students to ensure they are eligible for the courses.

“You have to recognize this is a college-level class while you are in high school,” Goodwin said.

Even for honors courses, students have to qualify. The application process is based on a combination of test scores, grades in the current academic year and teacher evaluations. For honors English courses, students have to take a tailor-made test to get in. Based on those results, there will be only two honors English courses for sophomores at Tuscola next year compared to three this year.

While parents have expressed concerns that the testing has weeded out the number of students eligible for honors English, Nolte said it is important to make sure students end up in the appropriate level course at the beginning of the school year.

“Otherwise they will want out of the course midway through, and there won’t be a regular English course to jump to,” Nolte said.

Dr. Kristen Hammet, a veterinarian in Waynesville, has been an advocate of offering advanced courses in high school.

“We do need to offer the kids courses; they need to be able to get in top level schools,” said Hammet. “If these kids can’t compete, they can’t get into the Dukes and the Princetons and Davidsons.”

But, it’s more than that, Hammet said. She sees academically gifted students as a special-needs group. They crave a challenge that, if unmet, can leave them floudering and can lead to them checking out intellectually.

“These kids need these courses,” Hammet said. “It has been shown that if the gifted and intellectually and academically gifted kids are not offered courses that meet their challenge, they are at greater risk of dropping out, or become more depressed and more suicidal.”

Haywood Community College leaders told a gathering of elected state leaders this week that students and the economy would suffer if funding cuts to the college continue.

While college leaders were making their points about funding, state legislators participated in their own partisan finger pointing about who was responsible for the state’s budget shortfalls.

HCC President Rose Johnson invited legislators to a brunch at the community college this week to give the college an opportunity to discuss budget priorities important to HCC specifically and the community college system as a whole.

High on the list for college leaders was the loss of state funding. HCC’s state funding cuts will amount to $2.3 million in four years: $297,000 in 2009-‘10, $396,900 in 2010-‘11, and $809,000 in 2011-‘12. The projected reduction for 2012-‘13 is $833,000.

Johnson implored legislators to restore this funding. However, if the budget passes with reduction included, Johnson asked legislators to continue to allow college to decide where the cuts would come from, as they have done in the past.

Democratic and Republican legislators in attendance publicly sparred over the state budget cuts, a harbinger of what will likely be a hot button political issue in the coming campaign season.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, placed blame for the community college cuts squarely on GOP leaders in the General Assembly. He said the decision to eliminate the half-cent sales tax last year cost the state almost $1.4 billion in revenue, more than enough to have fully funded education at past levels.

Sen. Jim Davis, a freshman Republican from Franklin, countered that the previous Democratic leadership had landed the state in a fiscal mess. Spending reductions were the only way to balance the budget, he said, admitting that the cuts were tough measures taken to address a tough situation.

HCC leaders also asked county commissioners to restore the allocation for capital building projects and maintenance to $500,000. Haywood commissioners reduced the college’s building and maintenance fund to $120,000 as part of general belt tightening driven by the recession.

County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said commissioners knew they were obligated to protect taxpayers’ investments by maintaining buildings, and he hoped tax revenues would increase this year and more could be provided for HCC. The county is in the midst of budget workshops now, however, and Swanger said it was too early to make any commitment about potential funding increases.

Others attending included Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; county commissioner Mike Sorrells; and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan, D., and Richard Burr, R.

For the first time perhaps in its 123-year history, faculty, staff and students at Western Carolina University are helping develop a priority list that will shape the coming year’s budget.

“This has been a first pass at a new, and hopefully more open and transparent, budget process,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher told members of the university’s faculty senate last week.

Groups of stakeholders in the process — the administration, faculty and students — have been meeting to discuss the next fiscal year budget. The amount of money WCU will get from the state won’t actually be known until this summer. Last year, it wasn’t clear until August. But, Belcher emphasized that he wanted to initiate the process when everyone was still actually present on campus and not wait until dorms and classrooms were empty.

During the past month, two large meetings were held in which a series of framing questions were asked to define the issues facing the university. Belcher described the responses as “fascinating,” adding that they included instructional capacity, research and potential engagement with the outside community.

Educational issues emerged as the No. 1 priority of all involved, Belcher said.

“I think it was a very good process. Personally it was enlightening,” he said, noting that the budget decisions made and the rationales behind those budget decisions would be posted for public review.

Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said for her part the clearest priority that emerged “was about students in the classroom and supporting the classroom.”

She asked if the meeting notes could be made available online, which the chancellor agreed to do.

Belcher did emphasize that the recommendations being reached by members of the administration, faculty and students aren’t necessarily “the gospel,” that WCU administration would have to work within the budget’s constraints. WCU in the past four years has experienced $30 million in cumulative budget cuts.

Phil Sanger, director of the WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization, emphasized that in his view “program prioritization” at WCU is key to good budgeting.

“We can’t make good decisions without knowing where to direct our efforts,” Sanger said.

Jason Lavigne, chair of WCU’s Staff Senate, said that in his 13 or so years at the university that this had proven the most enlightening budget process he’d experienced.

Keeping a roof over the head of Haywood County’s nearly 8,000 students is getting harder every year as the school system grapples with funding cuts at both the state and county level.

With 16 schools, it’s wise to stay on a steady rotation of replacing a roof every one to two years. Go four years without replacing one, and it is catch up time.

“Then where is the money going to come from? Instead of $1 million project you are looking at a $3 to $4 million project,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County school board. “Now we are at the point where somebody is going to have to step up our schools are going to start going down.”

That’s exactly the message school leaders will be taking to county commissioners this year as they lobby for their maintenance budget to be restored. The county’s annual $600,000 maintenance and repair budget for school buildings was cut to $200,000 four years ago.

“We have to buy light bulbs and fix broken pipes. It’s fixing door knobs and changing locks and keys, and replacing windows that get hit with a rock,” Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said. “It is just on and on and on.”

SEE ALSO: Where do schools rank?

Commissioners don’t doubt the schools need the money.

Falling behind on upkeep will eventually catch up with the county, agreed County Commissioner Mike Sorrells, a former school board member.

“The longer you prolong this the more behind they are going to get,” Sorrells said. “If you don’t do your preventive maintenance you are going to end up with a huge backlog. So it is like the saying goes ‘pay me now or pay me later.’”

But in this case, the county may have to take the “pay me later” approach, depending on how the coming year’s budget shapes up. (see related article.)

Another routine expense the school system once kept on a regular schedule is replacing activity buses used for field trips, band trips, sports teams and the like. Those activity buses have to come from local dollars — and the money to replace them hasn’t been there.

“We had a schedule plan to increase that, and that has been frozen for three years,” Francis said.

 

Assault on all fronts

The school system has also lost a pot of state money for building maintenance, repairs and small capital projects. The state once earmarked a share of corporate income tax for school systems, divvied up based on school population around the state.

When the recession hit, the state started keeping that money for itself — resulting in a loss of $270,000 a year.

That puts the school system out a total of $670,000 in building needs.

Meanwhile, however, the Haywood school system has gotten a boost from lottery money. The school got more than $1.4 million last year in lottery money to use for maintenance and capital projects.

When the state started a lottery six years ago, lawmakers promised the money would be a boon for education. Lottery money would not supplant current funding but would be stacked on top of the funding schools already got, lawmakers promised.

Ultimately, it appears lottery money has supplanted other sources of school funding after all, even though it wasn’t supposed to.

 

Operational money

In addition to school building construction and maintenance money, the county also gives the schools money for operations, nearly $14 million a year. It hires extra teachers that the state won’t pay for, school secretaries, janitors, supplies, and myriad other operational costs not covered by base state funding.

While the county hasn’t cut the schools’ operational budget, it hasn’t grown any either.

About eight years ago the county brokered a deal with the school system designed to curb what had become an annual fight over how much money the county would pony up. Under the deal, the county would use a formula based on student population to determine school funding each year. The formula also built in a 1 percent increase year to year. But it has been frozen for the past 4 years.

Commissioner Mark Swanger, who at the time had just gone from school board chairman to county commissioner, came up with the idea of a formula.

“The formula worked great,” Sorrells said. “Every year, the school system was able to say we are expecting this amount of money.”

Sorrells saw real progress during those years of better funding.

“So it has been disheartening to have to cut back and cut back,” Sorrells said.

Schools got only a brief and passing mention by Haywood County commissioners during a brainstorming session last week on priorities for the coming year.

Education came up near the end of a free-wheeling 90-minute discussion, with only two to three minutes spent on the topic.

County commissioners later said that education is top priority, however, and its short and late mention in their discussion is no indication of the importance they ascribe to it.

“With this board, schools have been at the top,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, former superintendent of the school system who was a career educator.

Commissioners said their commitment to the schools goes without saying — literally — thus they really didn’t need to say very much about it.

“That’s a matter that we know every year is at the top of our to-do list. It is just always a priority,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It is just a given.”

Of the five commissioners, three have been leaders in the school system. Upton as superintendent, principal and teacher; Swanger as school board chairman; and Sorrells as a former school board member.

Sorrells agreed that schools are “a given.”

SEE ALSO: Lottery money hardly a win for schools

“Boom — that is part of the budget,” said Sorrells. “Historically, Haywood County has always, always supported education, and I feel like our board is still very much in tune to that.”

Sorrells was the one who brought up education in the 11th hour of the priority-setting budget discussion. He realized education hadn’t been mentioned yet and didn’t want the meeting to slip by without at least some acknowledgement that schools would be attended to.

“Albeit it come up at the end, but it come up,” Sorrells said.

The school system has been saddled with funding cuts at both the state and county level. Haywood County Schools has lost 129 positions and $8 million compared to its pre-recession days.

Meanwhile, commissioners have pledged not to raise taxes, so the prospect of more school funding could be slim, even though commissioners said philosophically they wish they could restore cuts to the school’s budget.

“But how in this economy when people are struggling do you come up with that extra money?” Sorrells asked. “I am torn between that. It is a Catch 22 for me.”

Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County school board, said he empathizes with commissioners who are still handcuffed by the economic realities of the time. However, Francis hopes lost funding can be restored, as cuts are starting to take their toll.

“We’ve got a great school system here, and we need to protect it,” said Francis. “It is a selling point for the county. If we lose a good school system, people don’t want to move here. They won’t want to work here.”

 

Top of the list?

With Haywood commissioners pledging not to raise property taxes, it leaves little wiggle room in next year’s budget. No new money coming in means no new money to go around.

There may be a little extra money — little being the operative word — if an uptick in spending stays on track to bring in more sales tax this year compared to last. A modest number of new houses and businesses being added to county tax rolls will also bring in a little more property tax.

The debate will likely come down to who — or what — will get first dibs on that little bit of extra money.

“I don’t know yet. I think we are still a little bit early,” Swanger said.

The majority of commissioners have indicated cost-of-living raises for county employees may top the list if there is any money to go around.

“One thing we will look at is county employees — the 501 county employees who haven’t gotten a raise,” Upton said.

County employees have not gotten an across-the-board cost of living increase in five years.

“Our employees have sacrificed a lot, being asked to do more with less and getting paid less as gas and other things are going up. I would like to see us help our employees some if at all possible,” Swanger said during budget discussions last week.

The county has awarded merit raises to particularly deserving employees, those who have taken on additional responsibilities or proven particularly exceptional.

“They realize we do have some real high performers and people are doing more,” County Manager Marty Stamey said.

Teachers would probably like to see pay raises too, but haven’t seen one in four years.

“Of course, the teachers’ pay scale from the state has been frozen,” Francis said.

In Haywood County, school teachers get a local bonus —  4.5 percent of the base salary from the state. These supplements are supposed to attract better teachers. While higher than many counties its size, Haywood’s teacher salary supplement is still lower than most of the state’s more urban counties — and lower than Buncombe and Asheville.

Haywood County commissioners and the school board pledged to work together to increase the local bonus a little each year until Haywood County caught up. That plan was sidelined with the recession, however.

Morally, it would be difficult to lay off even more people to afford raises for everyone else, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said.

“As far as I am concerned, how in the world can we increase the supplement when we have lost 129 employees,” said Nolte, citing the toll on the workforce in Haywood’s school system since 2008.

The county likewise has laid-off staff — more than 50 positions have been cut in four years.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said giving employees raises is an admirable goal, but he pointed out that in this economy, jobs are hard to come by, and there are always plenty of applicants for any open position the county has had.

Still, with the majority of commissioners reflecting a desire to give employees raises with the little bit of extra money in its coffers, the best-case scenario for the schools may simply be no more cuts.

“We all want to keep it at least where it is,” Upton said. “I am thinking our mindset is we just want to maintain. Maintain — that is the big thing from our budget session.”

Sorrells agreed the schools, like everyone in county government, will likely be hearing the “do more with less” refrain again this year.

“That has been our theme in the county, and we are going to be in that mode for a little while,” Sorrells said.

In the meantime, commissioners are pinning their hopes on consumer spending to increase sales tax revenues. The more it goes up, the more additional money they have to spread around.

A cut of the state sales tax flows back to counties. In the last quarter of 2011, Haywood County saw a slight uptick compared to the same quarter of 2010 — an extra $65,000. It’s hardly enough to pay for raises for all 501 county employees and still have some left over for the schools.

But, Stamey hopes the trend will continue through the next six months.

“The key is sales tax,” Stamey said. “That is the key one we are monitoring closely.”

 

Common ground

Schools get most of their budget from the state, which pays the lion’s share of teacher salaries. Counties foot the bill to construct and maintain school buildings. That’s the simple version anyway.

Counties also contribute to varying degrees for additional positions, from teachers to extra teacher’s assistants to school secretaries to janitors. Counties also pay for incidentals like activity buses used for field trips.

Haywood County chips in a larger contribution per pupil than many counties its size, and that commitment hasn’t changed, Commissioner Mark Swanger said, despite the belated shout out schools got in the budget priority discussion.

“All you can say is you want to fund education,” Swanger said. “We didn’t get into dollars on anything because we just aren’t there yet.”

Plus, the county isn’t entirely sure what the schools will be asking for yet. County and school officials are meeting next Monday to talk money. The annual budget pow-wow is essentially a chance for the school system to make its pitch.

“We’ll make sure going into this budget process they are aware of what our needs are,” Francis said. “They just need to be brought up to speed where we are.”

The school has to be strategic in its request. Ask for the moon, and the county will have a hard time discerning what is indeed a dire need. Ask for too little, the county will see the schools as being in relatively good shape.

Both the school and county officials went out of their way to stress what a great relationship they have.

“I don’t know if it is anybody’s fault, the state or the commissioners or anybody else’s,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte. “I think the commissioners empathize with us here.”

Likewise, the school board empathizes with commissioners.

“We understand the funding situation they are under,” Francis said.

Western Carolina University has launched a pay study to determine whether male employees are paid more than their female counterparts when doing the same jobs.

The study is expected to take up to two years to complete. It has been some seven years since a formal task force studied salaries at WCU. That was a true labor market study, and not related to gender equity, according to university administrators.

“I think that this is important to do because this type of study has not been conducted in some years,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News. “While one can point to there not having been salary increases in recent years as a reason for not pursuing such a study, I think that, nonetheless, it is important for us to understand our current status and situation, knowledge of which will be important context for us in making decisions when money for salary increases is made available.”

Cash-strapped North Carolina isn’t expected to dole out money for raises anytime soon, regardless of study results. WCU professors and staff last received an increase four years ago.

News of the pay review is triggering intense interest on campus, where many faculty and staff have long suspected, believed or oft speculated whether there are indeed salary gender inequities in play at WCU.

Psychology Professor Hal Herzog said that it is common practice at most universities such as WCU for faculty members with identical qualifications, experience and work loads to make vastly different salaries.

“The role that sex discrimination plays in these differences is complicated by the fact that faculty salaries are closely tied to the field people are in,” Herzog said.

For example, faculty members in accounting, finance, information systems, and economics — mostly men — make more money than those in the English department — mostly women, he said. A comprehensive analysis of sex differences in pay needs to take factors like these into account, Herzog said, adding that he remained “mystified” why it would take WCU two years to conduct such a study.

“After all, salaries of state employees are a matter of public information,” Herzog said. “This is not rocket science.”

Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and president of WCU’s chapter of the American Association of University Women’s Tarheel Branch, said the two-year block of time seems in line with a similar study proposal by the group. The national group focuses on such issues as gender equity, and local members wanted to formally examine WCU’s salaries.

“That’s not any different from our proposed timeline, so I am not comfortable saying that two years is too long,” Wright said. Wright added that she’d like it “put forth,” however, that she is an English professor and not a statistician.

Wright said what does disturb her, on the face of it, is the disparity in the number of full professors and women in leadership positions at the Cullowhee university.

“I know that these discrepancies are not and cannot be the result of women doing less and inferior work,” she said. “They are the product of a university culture that has historically not fostered and supported women’s leadership and advancement.

“The fact that Chancellor Belcher has chosen to explore this issue seems like a good thing to me,” Wright said, adding that she fully supports his efforts to identify and rectify possible inequities.

Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.

The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.

“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”

The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.

Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.

“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”

The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.

“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.

Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.

“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”

The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.

Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.

“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.

States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.

“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.

However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.

“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.

The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.

But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.

The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.

Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.

“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.

Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.

“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”

The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.

Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.

 

Going the distance

Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.

Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.

John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.

“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.

Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.

Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.

In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.

Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.

The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”

The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.

 

Decision pending

The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.

 

County-by-county

All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible

Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.

Here’s what some counties are doing.

Swain

Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.

Macon

Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.

Haywood

Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.

Jackson

Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.

Page 11 of 22

The Naturalist's Corner

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