County releases 2013-14 draft budget
Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque presented his proposed 2013-14 budget to commissioners Tuesday, a $55.8 million budget that increases spending by 2.28 percent overall.
Commissioners will further evaluate the proposal in work sessions starting this week before a public hearing May 21.
"Thank you for your hard work, but it ain't over," Chairman Nathan Miller said to Geouque.
The proposed budget keeps property tax rates level for the eighth year in a row and provides funding for an additional 24-hour paramedic crew for Watauga Medics in an effort to improve response times.
It also offers a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment to county employees and increases funding approximately 3 percent to Watauga County Schools, Caldwell Community College and the Watauga County Public Library, Geouque said.
For the fifth consecutive year, no money is budgeted for the county's capital improvement plan, but the budget does provide about $340,400 for the school system's capital improvement needs.
The county has budgeted about $313,000 for repairs to county facilities in an attempt to get back on a regular maintenance schedule, Geouque said.
The general fund budget totals $42,319,592, an increase of 2.15 percent over the current year budget.
One of few new expenditures proposed for next year is an additional 24-hour
ambulance crew at a cost of $178,645. If approved in the budget, the crew could begin Jan. 1, 2014.
The county also will have to identify money for an additional medics base, Geouque noted.
"That's an increased service for the citizens," Miller said. "When you call an ambulance, you're in the most dire need. The response times, especially in the western end, are not the best."
Miller said he believes the county will seek a base location on the western side of Watauga County -- despite pleas from Blowing Rock for a site there -- and he thinks it will be owned by the county rather than by Watauga Medics, the for-profit ambulance business that contracts with the county.
Craig Sullivan, director of Watauga Medics, said the additional funding would be appreciated.
"I've been hitting them up for years for an additional crew," Sullivan said. "We need it. We are so busy."
The budget also recommends two new positions: a custodian and an aquatics position. A total of 15 new positions, 13 reclassifications and three salary adjustments were requested from the departments.
The proposed budget also would provide an increase of about $86,000 to the Watauga County Sheriff's Office, some of which will go toward the purchase of five new vehicles to replace current high-mileage cars.
Miller said earlier in the budget process he did not want a cost-of-living adjustment included for county employees. He said Tuesday that he did not request it in the manager's budget because he didn't feel it would be possible without a tax increase, but was pleased that Geouque was able to make the numbers work.
Miller said there were many parts of the budget he liked, and he commended county staff for their planning.
"In the three years I've been here, we've always budgeted conservatively, and we always end up with a small surplus," Miller said.
The Board of Commissioners will meet at 4 p.m. Thursday the Watauga County Administration Building for its first work session on the budget. If necessary, a second work session will be held at 4 p.m. Monday.
The full budget proposal is available at wataugacounty.org.
Horn in the West gets funding
Commissioners also voted unanimously Tuesday to provide $8,400 to the Southern Appalachian Historical Association to run the Horn in the West outdoor drama this summer.
SAHA Chairwoman Michelle Ligon presented the request to the county after being turned down by the Boone Town Council because of the sales tax distribution change, which is expected to cost Boone about $2 million next fiscal year.
Ligon said the organization had raised $11,615 since March 18 in an effort to reach the $20,000 necessary to conduct Horn in the West operations until the show begins and ticket sale revenue is available.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy asked Ligon to consider also approaching the towns of Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock and Seven Devils, which are expected to gain money as a result of the sales tax switch next fiscal year.
Arts Council lease approved
The board also gave final approval Tuesday to a building lease for the Watauga County Arts Council.
The Arts Council will pay $1 per year for the next two years to lease the former New River Behavioral HealthCare building on Shadowline Drive. The building is also expected to house the Michael Patricelli Craft Enrichment Program and the Community Music School, both currently headquartered on the ASU campus.
Arts Council Director Cherry Johnson said she and volunteers have already been hard at work preparing the building. Johnson said unexpected plumbing repairs were needed that will cost about $5,000.
The financial support of the Arts Council and SAHA represents a change in direction for some of the Republican commissioners, including Miller and Blust, the chairman and vice chairman.
Miller said during the budget process in June 2011 that he didn't feel the county ought to subsidize most nonprofits, a viewpoint Blust has said he shared.
"In my opinion, they should stand on their own, or not at all," Miller said in June 2011.
But Tuesday, Miller said he felt it was appropriate to fund SAHA because it was a one-time emergency need, not a recurring amount. He said he also believed it was wise to allow the Arts Council to use the county building to keep it maintained properly, rather than sitting vacant.
He said both organizations had been "pretty much done wrong by the town of Boone" -- the Arts Council by exiting the Jones House and SAHA by being denied funding due to Boone's projected sales tax loss.
"We don't want those casualties on our doorstep, so if we could help, we decided we'd help them," he said.
The board also received an update from architect Bill Dixon on the proposed officers' memorial to be constructed at the Watauga County Sheriff's Office.
The memorial, set to honor Deputy William Mast and other local officers killed in the line of duty, is slated to include three flagpoles, emblems from all county law enforcement branches and stone slabs, among other features.
Dixon said Tuesday he expected the entire project to cost about $80,000 to $90,000 -- a figure that caught some commissioners off guard.
Miller said he remembered a figure closer to $20,000 to $30,000 when it was first presented early in the design process last fall.
Commissioners agreed to continue with
the planning and proceed toward a competitive bid process.
The board appealed to any contractors, stonemasons or other tradesmen who would be interested in making tax-deductible donations of services or products toward the memorial to contact the county manager's office at (828) 265-8000.
Dixon said it was unrealistic to think the memorial would be ready by July 26, the anniversary of Mast's death.
"I think at the very least we'll have some sort of groundbreaking," he said.
On Tuesday, the board also:
-- Voted 3-2 to hire Blue Ridge Environmental Consultants to conduct an environmental assessment for the U.S. 421 underpass project, which will eventually lead to the creation of a path linking the Boone Greenway system to Brookshire Park. Commissioners Perry Yates and Blust raised concerns about the costs of trail upkeep, but Miller broke ranks to vote with Democratic Commissioners John Welch and Billy Kennedy in favor of the project.
-- Approved a plan to work with McGill Associates and negotiate a fee for due diligence services on the 199-acre property the county is purchasing off N.C. 194 for a business park. "All of them had a very good handle on the sensitivity of the location of the property and how careful they had to be with their design," said Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman. "They brought that up without us even asking them."
-- Approved a three-year contract with McLaurin Parking for county lot management services at an increase of $764.
-- Agreed to allow an extension of the demolition contract with NEO Corporation for the former Watauga High School for another 50 days due to weather delays. The project now must be completed by June 4.