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Haywood County government, schools scale back budget proposals

Every year around this time, local governments, community colleges and public schools are busy crafting budgets for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1. In a normal year, budgeting is a year round process, however this is anything but a normal year.

“We’ve been having discussions on how COVID-19 might affect our budget request, but some of that’s unknown,” said Dr. Shelly White, president of Haywood Community College since last December.

White made the remarks during a county budget work session on May 4, where Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte and Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead gave presentations of their own, all tempered with caution. 

Plans and projections made prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic are all out the window at this point, and White’s budget, her first as HCC president, asks for a small 3 percent increase over last year. 

Under the proposal, salaries would grow from $1,105,700 to $1,130,120, or $24,420. Materials, supplies, service agreements, fuel and legal expenses are expected to increase from $539,168 to $545,580 or $6,412. Contracted services also require a small increase from $460,752 to $470,752, a growth of $10,000. Utility cost, based on estimates from Duke Energy, represents the largest increase, from $578,150 to $625,150 or $47,000. 

The only capital request made by White is a parking lot maintenance machine needed to replace an older model, at $30,000. 

“I know it’s not ideal,” said Morehead at the conclusion of White’s presentation, “but I appreciate her work on getting it to 3 percent.” 

Following suit, Nolte, accompanied by new finance director Leanna Moody, presented a flat budget that only shows an increase in pay (2 percent for all positions), an increase in state-mandated retirement contributions (from 19.7 percent to 21.5 percent) and an increase in hospitalization payments, from $6,306 to $6,647.

Those increases represent a total growth of almost $450,000 against a $17 million local current expense budget. 

Nolte’s budget strategy was summed up in the first few lines of his budget message, “ … our primary focus points for the 2020-21 budget are (1) to recruit maintain and support employees in their passionate and productive work (2) limit expansion items in the local current expense budget and (3) adjust the budget as appropriate to account for unexpected impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Some things, however, just can’t wait. Associate Superintendent Dr. Trevor Putnam presented HCS’ capital budget requests, which remain unchanged from what he asked commissioners for back in early March. 

After years of budget cuts during the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, HCS has been playing catch-up on critical infrastructure needs like awning repairs, equipment for the maintenance department, gravel for playgrounds and new HVAC units. 

Those requests total $900,000 — the same amount allocated in the current year’s budget, and an increase from $750,000 two years ago. Prior to that, HCS saw capital outlays in the $200,000 range for several years, meaning they’ve been “nursing” some equipment along well past its useful life to avoid paying the full replacement cost. 

Morehead rounded out the budget presentations with a slideshow giving a “state of the county” overview tracking the activity of various county operations over the past year. 

Most showed small declines compared to March 2019, including county EMS calls, sheriff service of civil process documents, county clinic visits, single-family dwelling permits issued, real estate transactions and IT helpdesk tickets. The county library, closed due to the pandemic in March, reported visitation down from about 20,000 in March 2019 to about 9,000 in March 2020. 

Some categories, however, showed increases, like immunizations, the number of deed and estate transfers and the number of children in foster care. Morehead was especially concerned about the future of foster care with the assumption that people may now be more reluctant to let strangers into their homes. 

On the revenue side, general fund revenue requests were just over $85 million, a small increase from the current fiscal year’s adopted projection of $83.9 million, but Morehead’s conservative recommended figure is closer to $81.3 million, including a worst-case scenario of a 25 percent decrease in sales tax revenue. 

Cuts include merit pay, COLA and Christmas bonuses for county employees. More than $7 million in fund balance will be required to balance the budget at its current projection, compared to $3.6 million in fund balance used during the current fiscal year. 

Morehead will spend the next week meeting with commissioners and administrators; he’s tentatively scheduled to present his recommended budget to commissioners on May 18, and the required public hearing on the budget should come on May 26. That leaves the budget ready for possible approval on June 1, with a backup approval date of June 15. 

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