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Proposed Chatham County budget contains no property tax increases

Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - On May 16, 2011, the Chatham County Manager’s Office presented its proposed budget for fiscal year 2011-12 to the Board of Commissioners. The proposed budget of $82,883,972 is four percent less than the budget adopted for the current year and would maintain the tax rate at the current level of 62.19 cents.

The proposed budget recommends substantial cuts while ensuring the continuation of core functions of county government, according to County Manager Charlie Horne. County funding of K-12 schools would increase two percent overall, while the non-school operating budget would drop 8 percent as a result of tight budgeting by departments and decreased human services costs.

“We did not propose a cut in the tax rate. First, the state budget is not finalized. We know local governments will be picking up more responsibilities, even if we don’t know the full impact yet,” Horne said. “In addition, new county facilities will open next year. The new jail and the judicial center will cost $1.6 million to $2.4 million in next year’s budget, depending on revenues we could receive to house federal inmates. This year’s budget cuts put us in a better position to manage these expenses.”

Public hearings on the budget are slated for:

  • Pittsboro, May 23, 6 pm, Central Carolina Community College, Multi-Purpose Room
  • Siler City, May 24, 6 pm, Siler City Courtroom, Town Hall

“We proposed a level of cuts sought by the commissioners by putting first things first so that we have minimized impact on core services,” said Horne. “We also want residents to know that Chatham County begins the long recovery from the Great Recession in sound financial condition.”

Horne said that the budget proposal “keeps the vast majority of employees working. We also have provided a cushion to absorb an unknown level of state budget cuts that are expected to impact counties, but likely will not be decided until after July 1,” Horne said.

At the Board of Commissioners budget retreat earlier this year, the commissioners instructed management to prioritize budget cut levels based on functions. The commissioners identified K-12 schools and public safety as priorities, but public safety offices still had to identify possible cuts of two percent. Other departments had to identify a range of cuts from four to five percent, depending on whether they provide mandated services. In addition, departments were asked to identify services that could be cut or eliminated.

“We reviewed the proposed cuts from each department to select those that would be least detrimental to providing important services,” Horne said. “In the end, it meant that we had to propose cutting 14 full-time and part-time positions, but nine of these are currently vacant. I am pleased that, so far, we have been able to avoid furloughing employees, which would cut their income.”

Horne pointed out that identifying cuts was particularly challenging given that the percentage of the county’s budget mandated by the state or federal government increased from 71 to 75 percent. This leaves county governments with increasingly limited options to make discretionary cuts.”

One major state budget impact is a proposal to move state misdemeanants with sentences of less than 180 days to county jails, which could cost the county as much as $400,000 next year. While the county’s budget cuts will provide major savings in salaries and benefits, the N.C. Local Government Retirement System has mandated a 0.53% increase in counties’ contributions effective July 1, a cost of $87,102 for Chatham County.

The school system will suffer the most overall from state budget cuts, but other county departments and related entities also are expected to feel the bite, including Cooperative Extension, Public Health, Council on Aging, Elections, Public Library, Social Services, and the Sheriff’s Office.

The $1.5 million budget reduction has a major positive impact on the county’s fund balance so that it will remain well above the county’s adopted goal of at least 20 percent through 2016. This will allow the county to implement its five-year capital improvement plan.

The county manager’s budget involves proposed reorganizations of functions due to the county commissioners’ earlier elimination of the Sustainable Communities Development Department. This reorganization will provide a total cost savings of $115,000. Under the plan, Planning and Central Permitting will again be separate departments, while Transportation Planning would move under the Planning Department.

Sedimentation and Erosion Control and Environmental Resources would be consolidated under a new Environmental Services Department, which would also include Waste Management and Water Quality. The current director of Waste Management would oversee this department. An affordable housing/green building specialist position would be restructured to serve as an ombudsman for new development projects, a need identified by commissioners during their retreat.

The Board of Commissioners voted earlier this year to eliminate several programs in the current budget year, saving $600,000 in the proposed 2011-12 budget. Additional programs slated for elimination in the manager’s proposed budget will save $236,000. These include:

  • Green Buildings Rebate Program, which has been underutilized: $20,000
  • Fire inspector for Siler City area, with duties handled by the town: $34,430
  • HIV Case Management in Public Health: $46,394
  • Public Health Community Alternatives Program for Children: $4,916
  • Library Bookmobile: $45,560
  • Parks & Recreation Grant Awards to towns in the county: $16,536
  • Lower Priority Recreation Programs: $5,275
  • Water Utility Meter Reader (no longer needed due to meter changeout program): $38,123 (employee will be reassigned to vacant utility position)

The proposed budget includes a long list of additional cuts totaling $1,548,507. Proposed cuts saving at least $50,000 in the upcoming budget are shown below with the estimated savings for next year:

  • Eliminate Environmental Resources Division and reassign its director to the water quality function in a new Environmental Services Department: $121,790
  • Eliminate a vacant Health Social Worker II position (functions will be handled by another agency): $55,479
  • Suspend budget transfer to Parks Capital Reserve until economy improves: $300,000
  • Eliminate the county’s contribution to a daycare network administration contract in Social Services: $84,650
  • Eliminate a Social Services contract for Child and Family Team Facilitation (staff would handle the function using federal revenues): $61,000
  • Eliminate a vacant tax appraiser position: $55,784

The proposed cuts will reduce the hours of operation for all library branches by four hours a week and reduce hours at some early voting locations for elections. In both cases, the departments will recommend hours of operation based on a review of least-visited periods.

Despite major budget cuts, the proposed budget includes funding for some new items:

  • Provide software upgrade in Central Permitting to improve public access to information and to improve staff efficiency: $67,680
  • Implement additional well sampling near the closed county landfill: $10,760
  • Purchase software for county commissioners’ meetings that will enhance minutes production and provide public access to online video of meetings: $58,000
  • Provide contingency to cover unexpected costs, such as additional state budget cuts: $187,167
  • Purchase utility gator for efficient maintenance of county parks: $8,000
  • Provide a half-time transportation planner (currently a grant-funded, full-time position): $29,342
  • Continue a domestic violence coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office (currently grant-funded): $25,853
  • Establish a court & detention transition supervisor in the Sheriff’s Office to coordinate training and preparations for new judicial center and new jail facilities: $62, 912

The proposed budget includes a few recommended changes to the 2012-16 Capital Improvement Plan made by the commissioners earlier this year, including removing the landfill as a project and providing planning costs for a future animal shelter expansion and joint garage shared with the school system.

The County Manager’s budget proposes a few other minor Capital Improvement Plan changes, such as smaller renovation projects, planning costs and use of 911 public safety funds for an emergency communications upgrade.

Assistant County Manager Renee Paschal, who is in charge of budget development, said that the revenue outlook for the county looks only marginally better this year. “Our revenue projections are based on two percent overall growth, but the property tax and sales tax revenues are slowly edging up. Motor vehicle taxes have finally stopped declining, but personal property tax revenues will drop two percent due to industrial property depreciation and exemptions.”

Paschal noted that residential building permits remain sluggish, indicating that the housing market and related growth have not regained momentum.

To recoup some program costs, the proposed budget includes fee increases for specific services in Project Turnaround, Public Health Department, and Parks & Recreation.

Six of the county’s 12 fire districts sought fire tax rate increases, primarily due to increased fuel costs, new fire personnel, and increased facility or equipment items. Note that the proposed budget document shows that Moncure Fire Department did not request an increase; however, after the document was printed, the department submitted a requested rate increase from 8.42 to 8.75 cents. While expenses decreased five percent, the department suffered a major loss of revenue.

After the public hearings noted above, the Board of Commissioners will review the proposed budget during its June 6 meeting and special budget sessions slated for June 1, 2 and possibly June 7, if needed. All work sessions begin at 9 am and may last most of the day, but the locations in Pittsboro will vary.

Copies of the full proposed budget can be found on the county website: Click here. By May 18, you also may review printed copies at the three county libraries in Siler City, Pittsboro and Goldston.

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Proposed Chatham County budget contains no property tax increases

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