01/17/07 — Audit finds county has 24 percent in reserves

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Audit finds county has 24 percent in reserves

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on January 17, 2007 1:52 PM

Wayne County has accumulated about three times the state-mandated amount for fund balance reserves, which officials say will be used for capital improvement projects, including schools, in the next year, according to an audit presentation made to the county's board of commissioners Tuesday.

North Carolina law mandates that counties hold 8 percent of their total general fund expenditures in an unreserved fund balance.

The commissioners voted in 2005 to maintain at least 14 percent, in the county's fund balance. As of June 30, 2006, the county had 24.65 percent or about $20 million set aside, according to an audit by consultant Nunn, Brashear & Co.

During the past three fiscal years, the county's fund balance has increased from 15.85 percent, or about $12.2 million, to its current level. Other counties Wayne's size, which are gauged by a population of 100,000 people or more, usually have an average fund balance of 17.91 percent, according to the audit.

The 2005 property tax rate increase from 66 cents to 73.5 cents per $100 valuation is part of the reason why the county has more in its coffers. According to the audit, the county's total net assets increased by almost $10 million, primarily due to "net assets in the county's governmental activities."

County Manager Lee Smith said after the presentation that the fund balance has increased over the past several years in anticipation of debt service later this year.

The largest upcoming expense could be the renovation or construction of several public school facilities. The county hired consultant Evergreen Solutions more than a year ago to assess the county school district's facilities needs.

Since then, the school board approved a $90 million facilities plan that would improve older schools and construct new ones across the county.

Both commission and school board members have suggested that a bond referendum might be needed to pay for the plan. Members also said they were planning for a May bond referendum, but nothing as yet has been scheduled for May. The first time residents are asked to go to the polls is in the fall for municipal elections, Wayne Board of Elections Director Gary Sims said.

Building up the county's fund balance reserve gives the county a greater ability to borrow money if a bond referendum were to be approved by the public, Smith said. But he added that the county has also been saving money for several other projects in the next year to year and a half.

The Wayne County Administrative Building, which includes the Department of Social Services and the Health Department at the corner of Ash and Herman streets, is not large enough to hold both departments, Smith said. The limited space for the Health Department forces sick individuals to sit or stand near healthy people in waiting rooms and other areas of the building. That department could also use more space for offices and medical rooms. The Department of Social Services is also in need of more space for its employees, he added.

The Wayne County Services on Aging Building on James Street will also be assessed to determine how much more space is needed for employees, senior citizens and activity areas.

The commissioners could decide to build new facilities for each of these departments or existing buildings could be renovated to house each department's services, Smith said.

County officials will also have to decide whether to renovate the county jail or to build a new jail somewhere else in Wayne. The county already hired Brennan Associates to conduct a feasibility study of the existing facility in 2005. The company is now completing another study considering the construction of an off-site jail, Smith said.

In Brennan Associates' first study, the consultant said the number of people placed in the jail has continued to increase over the past several years. In 20 years, that could mean that the jail would be forced to house an additional 1,000 inmates. But even with massive interior renovations to the existing facility, the study concluded that development would only create about 450 beds total.

Smith said the commissioners will begin discussions on each capital improvement need during the board's retreat next Friday.

In other business, the commissioners also approved the concept of a county-wide utilities master plan and the request for proposal for that plan. The master utilities plan, which was initiated by the city of Goldsboro, will include all municipalities and Wayne Water Districts to plan how to interconnect water and sewer services across the county.

A price for the request for proposal has not been determined, but Smith said it should be available before the commissioners plan the next fiscal year's budget. Developing the master utilities plan is expected to take about a year and a half.

The commissioners approved two changes to the county's fee schedule. The first regards a well permit fee of $175 for any new well in the county. State laws being implemented in the next year will include a similar fee and county officials will implement the fee in April to regulate well construction and help protect groundwater. The other fee change will increase the advanced life support fee from $495 to $505.48 to reflect the Medicare allowable rate for this year.

The county now also has a zone included into the zoning ordinance. The commissioners approved the inclusion of the airport industry zone, which will allow manufacturing, printing, communications, utilities, business services, construction, recreational activities, agriculture and many other uses where it is zoned in the county.

The new zone will also allow Case Farms to expand its operations on land the company bought off of Pecan Road near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Before the zone was implemented, any new construction would have been considered encroachment by base officials. Encroachment around military installations is a major factor in Pentagon decisions about which bases to maintain, expand or close.