by Allison Haver
County staff will meet with department heads in the coming months before offering a recommended fiscal year budget to the commissioners.
Two budget work sessions will be held in May. The specific dates of those work sessions will be decided during the next commissioners' meeting.
Watauga County Schools representatives told commissioners Friday that they would like to request the same level of current expense funding provided for in the last fiscal year.
"We are basically thinking that we will come to you for a flat request this year," Watauga County Schools finance officer Ly Marze said. "Of course, all of this is estimated and things may change between now and when we finalize things."
The school system had not completed its budget development process by the time of the commissioners' retreat, and uncertainties with state funding and the impact on the school system's overall budget are still present.
Last year, the system's current expense funding was $12,063,334.
According to Marze, the schools and departments will present their needs to their budget committees starting this week.
However, the top three upcoming needs for WCS are increases in health and retirement benefits, instructional technology and local supplements.
According to Marze, the school system is expecting increases in health and retirement benefits for locally and state federally paid employees.
"Maybe 15 to 20 years ago, people could retire at the mark and then find something to do, but now we aren't seeing those numbers increase," interim WCS Superintendent David Fonseca said.
"I know a lot of people who are retiring now that have to go back and find a second job because they can't live off their retirements," commissioner Perry Yates said.
Instructional technology needs were second on the school system's projected needs list.
"We are in the midst of revamping and renewing the 1:1 initiative at the high school and we are trying to expand into the K-8 schools, as well," Marze said. "We have looked into using our fund balance and we have taken care of next year, but we do ask that you keep us in the mind for future years."
The 1:1 initiative is to provide laptops to students.
Increasing local supplements to WCS personnel also made the top three projected needs for the school system.
"We have not increased teacher supplements in several years, and it is a strong recruiting and retention tool," Marze said.
Commissioner chairman Nathan Miller said it was his opinion if the schools are going to increase teacher supplements, he wants the school system to ask for the commissioners' permission due to it being a reoccurring expense.
Marze said the schools have not made a decision on the final budget yet. They just wanted to keep the three main needs at the forefront for the commissioners for funding consideration now and in the future.
WCS maintenance director Dennis Ray also outlined to the commissioners a variety of what the school system considers critical capital projects, including a partial renovation of Parkway Elementary School's flat roof, partial replacement of roof shingles at Bethel School and an electrical upgrade service to Green Valley, Bethel, Blowing Rock and Mabel schools.
The total capital outlay funds requested by the schools were estimated at $400,000.
The Watauga County Tourism Development Authority reported that it has hired Clean Design, a Raleigh-based brand and design agency, as an agency of record to revamp its brand.
The TDA also hired Simple View, a website design company, to revamp the TDA website.
Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman, along with members of the Economic Development Commission, updated the board on the ongoing progress of the proposed business park plan.
"It's a work in progress," Furman said.
The plan presented included many visuals and more information about the quality of life available within the county.
"I'm really impressed with the detail and that you have reached out to every stakeholder (in the plan)," commissioner Billy Kennedy said. "I like that you are still working toward this and addressing issues that were reasons why we didn't purchase the land last time."
EDC chairwoman Lauren Waterworth said that the EDC wanted to let the commissioners know that the EDC is still working on the business park plan and it has taken the commissioners' previous comments and concerns about the park into consideration.
The board also received updates on the Watauga County Health Department, the Watauga Community Housing Trust and a report on the recycling and methane to electricity project and the solar energy project.
Watauga County tax administrator Larry Warren shared information about the ongoing tax revaluation.
Revaluation notices mailed to county taxpayers on Feb. 10 allows them 15 days from the date of the notice to request a hearing contesting the property values, according to Warren.
Starting on March 3, informal reviews on any appeals received will take place, and the process for all appeals is projected to be about five weeks depending on the number of appeals.