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Originally published: 2013-05-11 17:51:48
Last modified: 2013-05-13 10:23:36

Commissioners examine budget

Watauga County commissioners met for nearly six hours Thursday for one of their most important annual tasks: examining the budget.

The $55.8 million proposed budget released this week would keep property tax rates level while expanding ambulance services, increasing funding to the schools and law enforcement, and offering a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment to county employees.

The board spent the most time with its two largest allocations -- Watauga County Schools and the Watauga County Sheriff's Office -- before tackling other county departments and the always-controversial "special appropriations" to requesters, such as nonprofits and community parks.

With three new commissioners undertaking their first budget process, the work session also allowed the newcomers to further define their positions on budgeting and priorities and offered rare moments of bipartisanship.

Watauga County Schools

Assistant Superintendent David Fonseca, school board members and staff spent about an hour Thursday explaining the needs behind their $13.3 million request. The manager's recommended budget allocates about $12 million toward the schools, an increase of about $223,000, and sets aside $340,400 for capital needs.

"I know its tough for everybody, but I don't think you can ever invest enough in the boys and girls that we serve," Fonseca said. "The time and energy and money that we put into them will have great dividends in the future."

Among the largest requests in the schools' budget is about $596,000 for instructional materials, such as textbooks, digital resources, science consumables and other classroom items.

School representatives and commissioners alike lamented that decreased state funding has left counties with greater expenses.

"To think that counties can pick up that slack is a dream, a myth," Commissioner Billy Kennedy said. "... The state is being irresponsible with the funding for education."

Commission Chairman Nathan Miller challenged the school system about its existing fund balance, which Finance Director Ly Marze said now totals about $3.3 million.

"That tells me that if you were able to grow that fund balance in three years using county money, then the county overpaid," Miller said.

Commissioner Perry Yates said he thought it was wrong for teachers to be buying classroom supplies from their own pockets when the schools had a fund balance.

Fonseca emphasized that the schools have not been "hoarding money away," but that a year of leadership transition and curriculum changes prevented the system from purchasing as it normally would.

He said that auditors recommended that the schools keep about $2.8 million in fund balance, meaning the actual amount available to spend would be much lower than $3.3 million. Fonseca said the system would likely pull from the fund balance to make a dent in accumulated needs next year.

Counting payments toward education-related debt, the county will provide approximately 37 percent of its budget toward education next year.

Watauga County Sheriff's Office

The board also talked with Sheriff Len Hagaman and his captains about their budget, which accounts for about 23 percent of total county spending for 2013-14.

Among the needs are replacement patrol vehicles, bulletproof vests, new Tasers, employee training, vehicle radar calibrations, uniforms, and office and crime scene supplies.

"Everything that we're presenting is just the cost of doing business," Hagaman said.

Miller questioned why deputies were spending time on traffic speed enforcement, and Hagaman and patrol Capt. Kelly Redmon said the traffic enforcement was more reactive than proactive.

"They're used prudently, and we usually respond to community requests," Redmon said.

The sheriff's office also requested that the county reinstate its line item for specialized law enforcement legal counsel. The county stopped paying for the service last year and encouraged the sheriff's office to use county firm Eggers, Eggers, Eggers and Eggers. Several commissioners said they preferred to stick with that method due to cost savings.

Commissioners also discussed a no-idling policy and limiting the practice of allowing deputies to drive squad vehicles to and from work as ways to save money on fuel costs.

"If I was them, I'd rather have a (bulletproof) vest and some working Tasers than a ride home back and forth," Miller said.

Ambulance services

Commissioners also considered how to expand ambulance services and improve response times through their contract with Watauga Medics.

The proposed budget allocates an extra $179,000 for half a year of an additional 24-hour paramedic crew. County Manager Deron Geouque said he would then suggest a one-time capital outlay to build a new base for the medics.

If approved, the crew would begin work around Jan. 1, 2014.

Commissioners generally agreed that they would prefer to provide a 12-hour crew and building in western Watauga County, then see how that impacted services.

"I say crawl before we walk and walk before we run," Yates said.

Geouque said he would contact Watauga Medics Director Craig Sullivan for more information on the proposal before the budget adoption.

Special appropriations

The board also considered requests from 21 organizations, including the Beech Mountain Parks and Recreation Department, Watauga County Arts Council, Watauga Opportunities, Valle Crucis Community Park, Hospitality House and OASIS.

Commissioner David Blust had to leave the meeting early, so the four remaining commissioners became deadlocked several times and planned to revisit most of the allocations.

But they did find consensus on several items and tentatively cut about $25,800 from the special appropriations.

Commissioner John Welch said he wanted to know what the Boone Town Council would provide next year to the organizations, given the county-initiated sales tax change expected to cost Boone about $2 million. Council members have said previously they might cut funding for outside agencies entirely, but they have not yet reviewed the budget.

Welch noted that the county agreed this week to provide $8,400 in emergency funding to the Southern Appalachian Historical Association, which operates the "Horn in the West" outdoor drama.

SAHA appealed to the county after the Boone Town Council denied funding due to the sales tax change.

"We gave SAHA a shot in the arm," Welch said. "I think a lot of these others deserve a shot in the arm, too."

Sales tax changes

The county is planning for an estimated $1.3 million inflow from the towns of Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils due to agreements reached regarding the sales tax change. Because those towns are set to gain substantially from the switch, they agreed to give 60 percent of their increased amounts to Watauga County to prevent it from losing money.

It also estimates how much each fire department will receive under the switch to an ad valorem system. Because the sales tax collected varies from year to year, the exact amounts are unknown.

Geouque said the county held harmless the departments that would have lost money from the switch, so no department will receive less than it did last year from the county.

Under current budget projections, fire departments would see the following budget changes:

Foscoe: $19,000 this year to $165,126 next year

Beaver Dam: $32,000 to $35,223

Boone: $19,000 to $232,638

Zionville: $32,000 to $34,574

Cove Creek: $27,000 to $72,081

Stewart Simmons: $27,000 to $46,471

Meat Camp: $27,000 to $64,520

Todd: $16,000 to $19,671

Blowing Rock: $19,000 to $144,321

Shawneehaw: $32,000 -- no change

Creston: $8,000 -- no change

Deep Gap: $28,500 to $58,013

Beech Mountain: $20,500 -- no change

Seven Devils: $12,000 -- no change

Other budget items

The proposed budget also:

Provides another $75,000 for repairs to the Watauga County Swim Complex. Several commissioners said they wanted to talk about the pool, as the county continues spending money annually on repairs.

Pulls no money from the county fund balance.

Pays $7.8 million toward county debts, which include the new high school and law enforcement center.

Gives a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment to county employees and commissioners. Commissioners will split about $38,500 in 2013-14, with the chairman making slightly more than other commissioners.

Provides no funding for the county's capital improvement plan.

The board will meet for another budget work session at 6 p.m. Monday at the Watauga County Administration Building. A public hearing on the budget is set for 6 p.m. May 21, and the board is expected to vote on a final budget June 4.