06/01/05 — Commissioners look at budget proposal

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Commissioners look at budget proposal

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on June 1, 2005 1:53 PM

Wayne County commissioners will spend another two hours today looking for ways to keep from raising the property tax rate.

The board spent two hours Tuesday reviewing its priorities, set in January, and seeing how the proposed budget was going to meet those objectives.

"Don't be hasty to arrive at a conclusion," Commission Chairman J.D. Evans said. "I think it's an opportune time to move this county forward. The base is staying, and we need to take advantage and get things done."

County Manager Lee Smith said he hated to put together "this kind of a budget."

"Any county manager does," Smith said. "When a manager puts out this kind of budget, (calling for a 10-cent tax increase) people wonder 'what in the Sam Hill is going on?'"

But the problem, Smith said, is that "the county used its fund balance in good times, and you don't have it now."

The board, Smith said, is free to change items in the budget.

"You're the ones now that need to decide," he said. "I followed your goals."

In January, commissioners ranked their priorities, which included:

*Finding a way to finance the public schools facility plan, and other capital projects. Those projects include expansion of the airport, and renovating the Jeffrey's building. Renovation of the Jeffrey's building would move some offices out of the courthouse, freeing up space in there. It would cost about half a million dollars.

*Relocation of the animal control department and construction of a new animal shelter facility.

*Installation of a new communications tower and implementation of a radio system for law enforcement officers that would be compatible with state systems.

*Long-range financial planning that would include building up the county's fund balance.

*Implementing a removal procedure for vacant houses and mobile homes.

*Reducing the inmate population in the jail.

*Developing a utilities infrastructure using the GIS system.

Adding to the fund balance, Smith said, is an essential part of preparing for the future.

"If we don't do these things, I am in great fear of our bond rating," he said.

Smith said the county needed to move to a place of "pay as you go."

For the airport improvements, helping to build a new hangar would cost the county $300,000.

"That's the worst case scenario," he said. "It's possible that we could draw down 90 percent, but we're not guaranteed that."

The hangar, however, would pay for itself within three years, he said.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said he did support efforts to build the general fund for capital projects, which he knew were looming for the county.

"The parking today outside the courthouse was impossible," he said. "It's only a matter of years before we'll need more parking, and we need to get ready."

But Anderson, like the other commissioners, is concerned about the effect a big tax hike will have on property owners and small businesses.

The county will have to spend some money on projects that commissioners committed to in previous years, such as $204,000 in operating costs for a new building at Wayne Community College.

Paying operational costs for the building was pre-approved by the board in 2003, Smith said.

Smith is also proposing to hire three additional people, including a GIS coordinator to move the county forward with plotting information about its infrastructure.

Another person is needed in finance and an employee is needed for the electronic monitoring program at the Day Reporting Center, Smith said.

"This is part of reducing the need for a new jail," he explained.

The county also has to budget additional money for inmate food and medical costs and to put a screen grinder on the courthouse sewer system.

The grinder, Smith said, is a requirement from the city because the system has been blocking up, presumably from people stuffing items down the toilet in the courthouse.

The county must increase courthouse security because weapons are still getting in, Smith said.

The county also must spent $98,000 toward debt service on a building in Mount Olive.

Commissioner Andy Anderson said he surely didn't want to add money to the list, but voiced a concern about a new animal shelter.

"People have been talking about it," Anderson said. "I would like to see site preparation this year, at least."

Smith said the county was applying for license for a new communications tower, and is looking at a site on Eighth Street and Humphrey Avenue.

There's a five-acre tract there that could handle the tower, Smith said. The shelter could possibly go on that site too, he said.

Smith said half the property was already cleared, and it was cheaper than the other property on Clingman Street the commissioners had considered.

"We could also look at building half of an animal control shelter, and having it where you can add on later," he said.

Commissioner Atlas Price said he had been through every page of the budget, and knew Smith and the staff had done a good job.

But, he said, the county has not had to raise taxes so much at one time since he has been on the board, and that he hopes commissioners can find a way to keep the increase to five or six cents. A 10-cent increase, Price said, would be a "lot to swallow."

"Maybe if we can break it down to smaller amounts per year," he said. "That might be easier to digest."