County considers budget priorities
by Kellen Moore
Budget time is here.
For almost nine hours Friday and Saturday, Watauga County commissioners received updates and pleas for additional funding while directing county staff on priorities for the 2013-14 budget.
"This is kind of the initial step of our budget process," County Manager Deron Geouque explained Friday at the annual pre-budget retreat.
Staff will meet with department heads in the coming months before offering a recommended budget to the commissioners on or around May 7. A public hearing -- tentatively set for May 21 -- will precede budget adoption in June.
Chairman Nathan Miller said it was his opinion that the budget ought to be prepared with no tax increases and without a cost-of-living adjustment for county employees.
The Board of Commissioners also received information about several non-budget topics, including a policy that would give local vendors preference in county purchasing contracts and a policy for naming county facilities.
Watauga County Schools representatives told commissioners Friday that they would likely need additional funding for higher unemployment insurance costs, health insurance and retirement benefits.
"We would love to be able to tell y'all that our current expense request would remain flat ... but what I need to make you aware of or at least give you some information on are some pretty significant things that we face on the state level," Superintendent David Kafitz said.
The state also is considering a 1.6 percent to 2 percent pay increase for school employees, which the county would be asked to match for the locally funded positions, Kafitz said. The county agreed to put aside about $1.2 million in case it were needed for the local positions.
Technology purchases also proved a touchy subject, as Kafitz indicated the schools may need additional money, either for leases or purchases.
Maintenance Director Dennis Ray also outlined a variety of critical capital projects, including repairs to the Valle Crucis Elementary crawlspace for $201,000 and security upgrades at the K-8 schools, including a camera and buzzer system and doors accessible by card swipe.
The total capital outlay requested by the schools was $531,700.
Caldwell Community College President Kenneth Boham also reminded the board that "the Lord loves a cheerful giver -- and so do we."
But the college's only real financial request was that the county consider
helping with any cost overruns during the construction of a new building at the Watauga campus.
"If we have a hiccup, I'd like to be able to come and discuss that," Boham said, adding that the building design is simple and he doesn't expect problems.
YMCA and recreation
board also received an update from Bob Conklin, CEO of the Catawba Valley YMCA.
Conklin said his group recently completed a community assessment to determine whether a Y would be successful in Watauga County. The study found that an estimated 900 households would join a Y -- short of the 1,200 to 1,500 he would like.
"That's not enough for us at this point to think it might be successful," Conklin said.
He added that he is still interested in exploring a public-private partnership for a Y.
The board talked about potential sites for a YMCA, with Conklin saying the proposed site near Watauga High School would likely be too small and create too many parking conflicts.
Commissioners indicated that they might be willing to help with land but weren't as keen on financial contributions.
"It's just not going to happen without your support," Conklin said.
Commissioners appeared especially interested in doing something with the Watauga County Swim Complex, which will require thousands of dollars in repairs again next fiscal year as it has for many years.
EMS and public safety
Craig Sullivan, director of Watauga Medics, again reiterated a request for about $357,000 to provide another 24/7 medic crew.
"We are really getting stretched thin for the number of calls we're getting," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he prefers that an additional base be located on the west side of the county, where call response times are consistently above 15 minutes or more.
Two Blowing Rock Town Council members and a representative of Blowing Rock Fire & Rescue appeared Saturday to urge the county to locate a medic crew in Blowing Rock, where call volume is high.
Geouque suggested that the county hire an independent analyst to look at future needs to ensure the best site is selected for any future medic bases.
"We promise you, we'll look at this hard," Commissioner Perry Yates said.
The board also received an update on consolidated dispatch operations from director Jeff Virginia. The county is still waiting to hear whether Boone intends to join the consolidated call center.
Keith Honeycutt of the Economic Development Commission said the EDC is still looking for potential sites for a new business park to provide sites for industries to move into quickly.
He also requested that the county reinstate a $75,000 reserve that has been provided in the past for the EDC to begin aggressively marketing the county to businesses.
The Tourism Development Authority also provided an update on its occupancy tax collections, which have been rising for the last several years, and its efforts to advertise the region.
Planning and inspections director Joe Furman shared information on the Appalachian Enterprise Center, a small business incubator located off Poplar Grove Connector. Furman said he's working now with the Employment Security Commission to offer a lease to move those services into the building.
The board also considered a policy that would provide preference to local vendors in the purchasing of equipment and supplies for the county.
The policy would allow the county to offer a local company the chance to match a low bid provided by an out-of-county business -- if the local company were within 5 percent or $10,000 of the low bid.
The policy would apply only to purchases between $15,000 and $30,000. Above $30,000, the county is required by statute to accept the low bid.
A letter also has been sent to Rep. Jonathan Jordan and Sen. Dan Soucek asking them to support the idea. Miller said a bill is currently being considered at the state level that also would provide preference to local suppliers.
The board also
reviewed a draft policy for the naming of county buildings. The board requested that a policy be
written after representatives of the Watauga County Public Library asked that the building be
named for librarian Evelyn Shook Johnson, who died recently.
Both policies will be considered at future meetings.
The board also received updates on the Watauga County Health Department, the landfill gas-to-energy project and the Watauga Community Housing Trust.
Tax administrator Larry Warren shared information about the ongoing tax revaluation, indicating the values appear to be coming in roughly equal to the last revaluation, which occurred in 2006. The new property values become effective Jan. 1, 2014.
The county is also watching closely the state proposal to eliminate corporate and income taxes in favor of a higher sales tax, Geouque said.