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Chatham County Commissioner retreat recap

By Brian Bock
Posted Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - We wrapped up the second day of our three day commissioners retreat on Tuesday. (Final day will be on February 8). It was a very productive two days with most of the time spent discussing our priorities, the budget policy & process, budget reduction strategies, and the capital improvement plan (CIP).

After the election, someone told me that the secret to being a successful elected official was to be able disappoint your supporters at a rate they can accept. I don't think I fully understood that comment until we started talking about budget cuts and economic development ideas.

I won't bore you with all the gory details, but we are facing a tough budget year primarily due to the nearly $4 billion shortfall at the state level. Pressure from the state, increased debt service and operating costs from recent expansions coupled with upcoming needs, will force us to make reductions in almost every area of the budget. For those of you who have followed my writings and speeches, you know that this was not unexpected. It does mean that the reductions may need to be deeper than I thought and will be felt by everyone. Some will directly affect you while others will affect your friends and neighbors.The good news is that this situation provides us with an opportunity to reassess our priorities and to focus on those core government functions I've talked about over the past year.

We unanimously agreed that public education is our top priority and we are going to do our best to maintain funding at least at last years level. The school board will present us with a budget that includes their proposals to reduce costs to make up the expected $4 million state shortfall. We don't want to add to that burden if we can avoid it. Further, I'm committed to NO increase in impact fees or property taxes.

We approved the Capital Improvements Plan with only a few changes. School Superintendent Robert Logan gave us a presentation outlining student growth projections over the next several years. Most of our questions centered around the need to build a new high school and the even more urgent need for a new elementary school. The highschool has been on the CIP for many years and families are anxious to have it built.

I can tell you that I would like to have a highschool built sooner rather than later for many reasons but we need to be prudent and build it when it's needed rather than when we want it. If we build too early, there are negative consequences to the programming at the existing highschool not to mention the financial aspects of operating two relatively small schools in the northeast. If we wait too long, we'll find ourselves in an emergency situation.

The school board has told us that they will be able to provide updated student population growth rates on an annual basis rather than every two to three years as has been done in the past. These yearly updates will allow us to more accurately gauge the timing of opening a new highschool. Because the required lead time is between two and three years we need to be in a position to act quickly when the population warrants the new school.

The proposed CIP had the new school opening in 2015. Based on guidance from the school board we decided to move it back one year to 2016. Additionally we added language to indicate that this date may move forward or back as growth dictates. I realize this comes as disapointing news to some of you but I believe it was the right thing to do given the facts as we know them.

We also discussed the need for an elementary school. I believe the need for an elementary school is even more urgent than the high school. We all agreed that planning for this needs to begin immediately and put on the CIP as soon as possible. If projections prove to be accurate for population growth, you can expect that this will be on the next CIP we approve. For now, we are listing it as a "future project".

Finally, we acknowledged that some of these large projects take more than five years to plan and decided to change our CIP to a 7 year plan rather than a 5 year plan beginning next year.

So far, I've only talked about the budget reduction aspect of our work. At our first meeting in December, I said that Chatham County was open for business and I asked our planning professionals on the staff and our experts on the EDC to give us recommendations on how we can be easier to do do business with. I'm excited to say those recommendations are ready. The planning professionals and EDC experts will present those to us during our final retreat day on February 8.

After talking to many busisness owners, homebuilders, and others I feel more strongly than ever that we have an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. It takes too long and is too cumbersome now to build, expand, or open a business in the county. These recommendations will be specific and actionable. Some of the recommendations will be long term but others will have an immediate positive impact. The better we execute on this front the easier it will be to meet our needs and wants in the future without raising taxes.

Brian Bock is chairman of the Chatham County Commissioners.

Related info:
Commissioner Bock Blog
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Chatham County Commissioner retreat recap
Chatham County commissioner
Brian Bock.

Related info:
Commissioner Bock Blog