When the pandemic hit last year, Jackson County leaders reacted by passing a budget that assumed an 8 percent drop from the previous year’s sales tax collections. Instead, the county saw record-high sales tax collections and a bump in property tax collections following the completion of multiple new construction projects. As a result, County Manager Don Adams told the board, Jackson County will see $1.35 million in new spending capacity due to increased tax revenues over the coming year.
About two-thirds of that is spoken for already. The county will need $398,000 to give its employees a 2 percent raise, as well as $265,000 to pay for increased operational expenses at Southwestern Community College following completion of the Health Sciences Building this summer. Increased health insurance costs will run the county $187,277, representing a 3 percent increase — a number that caused a sigh of relief for commissioners who had grown used to percentage increases in the double digits.
However, the $496,000 net capacity increase does not account for any position adjustments or the standard increases typically given to the Board of Education, SCC and the library.
Also not accounted for in that number are the results of the 2021 property revaluation, which yielded a substantial increase in overall taxable value. Tax bills based on the new values will be mailed out in August, with payments considered late after Jan. 6, 2022. Keeping the same tax rate under the new, higher valuation would yield more revenue for the county, but commissioners could choose to lower the rate to keep property owners’ total bills similar to what they’re currently paying. Commissioners will discuss these issues during a work session at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 11. That meeting will stream at bit.ly/jacksongov.
Meanwhile, commissioners face a number of competing priorities for that new funding.
The largest list of requests comes from Jackson County Public Schools, which has eight priority projects requiring a total of $16 million to complete, in addition to a $4.5 million school safety project to convert its campuses to a single point-of-entry design that is already moving forward.
These projects include ADA compliance upgrades to the Smoky Mountain High School football stadium, which would cost between $70,000 and $250,000; slope stabilization following a landslide that occurred last year on the Scotts Creek Elementary School property, $800,000 to $1 million; a larger cafeteria and new classrooms at Fairview Elementary School, $4.5 million; a track for Smoky Mountain High School on the Jones Street property bought for that purpose, $750,000; a softball field upgrade at Fairview, $1 million; gym, performance stage and classroom renovations at Blue Ridge School, $5 million; a new bus garage, $2.5 million; and HVAC upgrades at the Smoky Mountain High School auxiliary gym, $1 million.
The school system’s top priority is the single point-of-entry safety upgrade, said Interim Superintendent Tony Tipton, but after that the next two priorities are football stadium upgrades and the cafeteria classrooms at Fairview. Additionally, multiple commissioners expressed a desire to complete projects at Smoky Mountain High School that would close out needs outlined in the school’s master plan, which is now nearly 20 years old.
However, commissioners are considering more than order of priority when planning these projects. They are weighing the possibility of a new state bond referendum, as well as which projects on the list are most likely to be funded with bond money. After investigating that question, Adams told commissioners that the $4.5 million project at the Fairview cafeteria and the $5 million Blue Ridge gym project would be most likely to qualify for bond funding. Removing that $9.5 million would leave commissioners with a list that could be reasonably accomplished within the next four or five years.
“I say that not to move Fairview down the list, but there’s some value to waiting for any real conversations on that until we can see what happens with the state bond,” Adams said.
Commissioners are considering more than just public school projects. For years now, Jackson County Superior Court Judge Brad Letts has been telling commissioners that the courts need more space. Adams put down $1.5 million as a placeholder number for that project, but the true cost is unknown — especially because most of the county’s administrative functions are located in the same building as the courtrooms. The final cost will depend on whether those functions must be relocated, as well as on the cost of the expansion itself. Adams told commissioners that he’d start the process of selecting an architect for the project, and that person would help them discover its true scope.
The board also spent a great deal of time talking about parks. For years, commissioners have been pushing to develop a pocket park in the Whittier community, but that has proven more difficult than expected, said Adams.
“The only properties we’ve been finding so far run a half million plus,” he said. “What that does is it turns a pocket park conversation in Whittier to a million-dollar-plus conversation.”
When the county first started using the phrase “pocket park,” it was with the understanding such a park might cost around $250,000, but the small park recently completed in the Savannah community ultimately cost twice that. If that’s how much these projects are going to run, Adams said, commissioners should consider funding them as part of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan rather than relying on dollars from its Conservation Preservation Recreation Fund.
Other park projects on the list include river parks at Cullowhee and Dillsboro, and the Fairview Recreation Complex.
“This is a list where I don’t know that we can give you a definitive answer today,” Chairman Brian McMahan told Adams after some discussion among the board members. “The consensus I’m hearing is that the Fairview Complex is ready to happen now. It is probably the most important to move on. The others have some moving parts to them that I don’t know that we could sit here and tell you which one to focus on next.”
The Feb. 23 meeting was the first of several meetings planned to shape the 2021-22 budget, with the next one occurring at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 11, to discuss revenue. New budget requests from county departments and nonprofits will be presented during the April 13 work session, and during the work session on May 11, commissioners will discuss capital projects and new requests. Adams will present his recommended budget during the May 18 regular meeting, and the final document is scheduled for adoption June 15.
Jackson County commissioners will discuss revenue-related decisions such as the property tax rate during a work session at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 11, at the Cullowhee Fire Department. The meeting will livestream at bit.ly/jacksongov.