12/29/08 — Part 2 of 2: Year in review: Savings prepared Wayne for downturn

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Part 2 of 2: Year in review: Savings prepared Wayne for downturn

By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 29, 2008 1:46 PM

Wayne County has been forced to search for ways to cope with a sour economy while working to ensure county projects will be able to continue.

The county is better poised to do so because of a sound fiscal policy that included building up the county's savings, County Manager Lee Smith said.

"I think what we did was to continue investment in economic development. We didn't stop," he said. "We just recently made offers to option more property.

"I have been questioned if that is a good practice. Absolutely. You have got to be ready for companies when the upturn begins. You are going to get companies that are going to reshape themselves. I'd rather be in a position where I know a company, if it shuts down somewhere else, maybe they could bring their whole operation here."

That investment, he said, includes continued support of the WORKS (Wayne Occupational Readiness Keys for Success) program.

"We need to concentrate on buildings and land, but we need a workforce, too," Smith said. "There are some 1,400 people with this level of (WORKS) certification. We can tell industries 'we have this number of people and by the way we have this land.'

"That is a good position to be in rather than to say 'we don't have any people who can work, we are not ready to train them and we don't have any land or anyway to help you.' Well, now we do."

Last year this time the economy was stronger and commissioners were talking about buildings -- $4 million for a new library in Mount Olive, $50 million to $55 million for a new jail, $30 million for a new Health Department building and $25 million for a new Department of Social Services building.

"You are sitting on $100 million worth of projects," Smith said. "You can't afford that."

Building the county's savings has helped to prepare the county for the economic downtown, he said. It has enabled the county to be able to make purchases like the old Masons property on North William Street and the old Belk building in Mount Olive rather than having to build new structures.

"We were in a position with cash so we could make that purchase," he said. "I had to show the board here is what it would take and here is how you could do it.

"As we begin to look at what we could afford for the money we have we began to look at if there were buildings in the area we could renovate, and do it cheaper."

Smith said the county has got to free up room in the courthouse and find new homes for the Health Department and Services 0n Aging.

The 86,000-square-foot Masons building has plenty of parking, is in a reasonably good location and is easily assessable by the GATEWAY bus system, he said. The county is paying $850,000 for the property.

It could become the new home for the Health Department and Services on Aging.

The Belk building will become the home for Steele Memorial Library. The county paid $400,000 for the property.

'The demand for library services is up because people are not buying books or subscribing to magazines, they are going to the library," Smith said. "It (Belk property) is a good deal."

Smith said the purchases do not mean that work will begin immediately, but rather will be phased in over several years.

Another part of the push to utilize existing space is the ongoing renovations to the Jeffrey's Building.

The county is paying cash for the project having saved about $900,000 over the last three years in preparation.

Another thing the county has been trying to do is to build the debt service capacity within the budget, Smith said.

"So if we do borrow for schools, and it still looks like we are moving in that direction, we will have a little bit of room in the operations budget without going after new property taxes because people can't afford them," he said.

Also continuing is the county's plan to implement a new $10 million communications system.

Smith said people still question the need for the project.

"When things are bad I sure hope the fire department, EMS and law enforcement can talk because we need it now more than ever," he said.

Proceeding despite the economy has an upside -- prices should be good and the county received a 3.88 percent interest rate loan with RBC Centura, he said.

Smith said he is also seeing where bids are coming in lower because sales are "not great so I think we are going to benefit from that."

Earlier in the year it had been hoped voters would approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase. Instead nearly 80 percent of the voters said "no."

Once that failed, the county had to look for other ways to balance the budget including budget cuts, trying to find other avenues to cut and finding other revenue sources.

The budget has decreased by about $3 million over the past several years, Smith said.

That translates to about 5.5 cents on the tax rate, he said.

One area that did increase was the tipping fee the county charges at the landfill, although Smith said the county's tax rate and tipping fees are still low compared to other counties in the state.

The tipping fee increased by $7. There also was a $20 increase in the fee charged county residents for use of convenience centers.

The solid waste tipping fee increased from $23 to $30 per ton and the convenience center fee from $40 to $60 annually.

"It was the first increase in over a decade," Smith said. "We needed the increase to build a reserve since we have to get right to build a new (landfill) cell in next five years without having to borrow money. You don't borrow money against a hole in the landfill. You have got to have cash."

Other money-saving efforts include the implementation of a four-day workweek for most county offices to reduce energy costs. More county offices are expected go to the schedule after the first of the year.

Older county vehicles have been replaced with more fuel-efficient ones. An idling policy is in force and most recently, 25 vehicles were parked -- employees now have to come in and get a vehicle instead of driving them home.

"If we didn't see the need we parked them, ones that may have been used for after-work purposes with people coming in," Smith said. "If we did not find they were being called on as much as they should have been we parked them."

Mobile data terminals have added to the vehicles used by county inspectors. The computers allow the inspectors to upload information directly to the county computer system without having to be in the office. Being able to do so will reduce the amount of travel required, Smith said.

Fuel prices are "interesting" and are being watched on a weekly basis, he said.

"We planned on $4 per gallon and right now for us, we pay less of the taxes, we are almost at a dollar. That is something that is helping us right now so between cutting back on driving and the idling policy those things have been helpful."

The county will continue those practices even if the fuel costs remain low, he said.

"That is right thing to do," he said. "When you get leaner and leaner times continue it into the fatter times and you will have much more money in the bank later on."

The county has some 130 fewer full-time jobs than it did several years ago.

"We moved a lot of full-time jobs to part-time jobs," he said. "No one has lost jobs, but as people retired or left we didn't replace them. Right now we have a freeze on hiring except for 24-hour shift positions or in positions where we might suffer in monies coming into the county or revenue-generating positions."

The county is also realizing savings in the $34,000 it is spending annually for the Code Red alert system that is used for emergency situations, weather alerts and Amber and Silver alerts.

The system helps reduce the time and manpower expended by fire fighters. Rather than having fire fighters go door-to-door in an emergency, Code Red alerts people by phone.

Another project that Smith is proud of is the new animal shelter.

The project cost more than $2 million and had been in the works for seven years. Approximately $750,000 of the cost was raised from private donations.