06/04/08 — County weighs budget proposal

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County weighs budget proposal

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 4, 2008 1:46 PM

A 2.3 percent cost-of-living increase for Wayne County government employees, increases in solid waste fees, elimination of vacant job positions and possible changes in the operating hours of some county offices are among the recommendations in the county's $162.4 million budget proposal. The general fund accounts for $73,598,214 of the total, which reflects a decrease of about $3 million from the current budget.

What isn't included is a tax increase. The rate will remain at 76.4 cents per $100 of valuation. County Manager Lee Smith told commissioners at their Tuesday session that he is quizzed about the tax rate at every restaurant, gas station or store he visits.

Commissioners will hold a budget work session Thursday, June 12 at noon and a public hearing on Tuesday, June 17 at 9:15 a.m. in the commissioners' board room. An additional session, if needed, could be scheduled after the budget hearing.

While the budget includes a salary increase, it does not recommend any merit pay increases.

In addition, approximately 50 employees will be reclassified -- primarily for additional responsibilities, increased production requirements or severe recruitment retention issues -- such as telecommunicators.

Not participating in the county wellness and health plan or not receiving physicals could be costly for employees. The budget would require those employees to pay $100 per month on individual health insurance costs.

Smith reminded the board that the county has managed to grow its fund balance over the last few years -- "savings" that the public has questioned in the past. Wayne County has been one of the few counties in the state to abide by its policies to maintain an adequate fund balance, he said.

However, for 2008-09, Smith is recommending use of the fund balance for public schools and a new emergency communications system.

The amount needed for the communications system will not be available until after the county decides on a new system.

He proposes a drawdown of $2.5 million from the fund balance over the next 24 months for school construction.

Smith said the county will be able to fund $23 million in school construction without any increase in property taxes.

He told commissioners that the county school system has another $80 million in construction needs that they have yet to consider.

Construction costs that high are in the realm of bond issues, he said.

The budget includes $18,887,994 in current expense funds for the schools and another 2,122,500 in capital outlay.

Another $665,000 will be funded separate from the current expense budget as special appropriations. It will be funded for only two years and then will be reevaluated for effectiveness.

Those funds will provide a mobile classroom, summer school program for rising first- through third-graders and security improvements at schools.

Smith said he had spoken with school officials about the summer school program that will be implemented July 1.

Smith said the county's tax base remains "steady" with $5.5 billion in taxable property projected for the new budget -- enough to generate about $40.9 million in property tax revenues.

In a cost-cutting move Smith is recommending a yearlong freeze on non-essential positions.

Smith said that if a position has been vacant for six months or longer without a decrease in productivity then he would questions whether or not it was needed at all.

He also expects to eliminate 20 positions. No one will be fired - jobs just will not be filled as employees leave.

That move will be equivalent of saving 1 cent on the current tax rate.

Those eliminated positions will add to the some 135 positions done away with over the past four years -- a savings of $3.25 million in annual payroll or about 6 cents on the tax rate.

Another way that the county is looking at to save money is to have some departments switch to four-day workweeks. Employees in those departments, which have not yet been identified, would work 10-hour days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Smith said the switch would reduce energy costs for the county and for the employees it would mean a 20-percent reduction in their commuting time and fuel costs. It would also provide citizens with a chance to visit the offices before they to go to work, or after they leave work.

As for fuel costs, Smith said he has budgeted expecting the cost to reach the $4.50 to $5 range. However, he did not rule out the possibility of having to revisit fuel costs and of being forced to utilize contingency funds for essential services.

He told commissioners that he has implemented a vehicle idling administrative policy to reduce fuel consumption. The policy is designed to eliminate unnecessary idling of all county-owned vehicles and equipment.

While the budget does not include a tax increase, it does include increases in the solid waste fees.

The tipping fee at the county landfill would increase from $23 to $30 per ton and the annual fee charged county residents to use the convenience centers would increase from $40 to $60.

He noted that $2.50 of the $7 tipping fee increase is a new state tax. He added that it has been about 14 years since either county fee has been raised.

The sold waste department is an "enterprise" and as such has to be self-supporting, Smith said. Within the next four years, the county will need to construct a new "cell" at the landfill at a projected cost of $4 million.

The fees will help ensure the county has the money on hand to build the project, he said.

There also will be some changes in how individuals will dump their trash. In the past, individuals drove to the back of the landfill. Under the new policy, the trash would be dumped into containers at the front of the landfill to be hauled to the back.

If approved, the budget would tack on a new $15 technology fee for building permits. The fees would cover the cost of laptop computers and wireless Internet connections in the vehicles used by county building inspectors.

Smith said the computers would allow inspectors to transmit inspection results from the field. The procedure would be more cost effective by saving time and miles driven daily.

Commissioner Andy Anderson had praise for the cost-cutting ideas represented in the budget

"It will take new things to get us through the current (economic) situation," he said. "We just can't sit and wait for things to happen."

Other counties face similar issues, he said. However, Wayne County has been taking steps all along to be prepared, he said.

Anderson said he knew of one eastern North Carolina county that had not been tightening its belt all along and had to dip into about one-half of its reserves.

"A man told me once that money is nice, a stockpile is nice and what is bad is when you go back to get some and there isn't any," Comm-issioner Atlas Price Jr. said.