01/20/12 — County gets 'A' for 2011, Bell says

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County gets 'A' for 2011, Bell says

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 20, 2012 1:46 PM

Wayne County government deserves an "A" not only for maintaining its tax rate, budget and departments, but for doing so without experiencing the same level of economic woes other counties in the state faced in 2011, says John Bell, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners.

Overall, 2011 was a good year for the county due in large part to the managerial skills of County Manager Lee Smith and the work of commissioners, Bell said.

"I will tell you this without any hesitation, our county manager is an expert in managing the county," Bell said. "He brings information to us. He studies. He has kept us out of the red. He knows what he is doing. He knows how to handle a budget and manage this county.

"We had about 1,200 or 1,300 employees at one time when he first came here. We are down now to about 800 to 900. What he did, in lieu of filling positions that we may not need, he would try to see if five people could do what six used to do."

Smith has been able to look at long- and short-term debt and figure out what the county could pay for with cash and what could be financed, he said.

"That has saved us a lot of tax dollars," Bell said. "I give Lee and I give the board of commissioners credit, too. We have a pretty conservative board. Contrary to what some people may believe, we think through these situations. We don't just jump out there and spend money just because we may have a few dollars in the bank. We ensure what we are spending it for is a good cause and is needed."

The county benefited from expansions at AT&T, Cooper Standard and AAR last year and has made inroads on projects that Bell thinks will enhance the county's attractiveness to business and industry.

"We were able to add a position over at Wayne Community College on the WORK Keys program," he said. "That program is second to none where we qualify workers and that helps us to recruit new businesses and to expand existing business."

Major county projects over the past year included property revaluation, redistricting, construction of a new communications system and major improvements at the county airport, he said.

Waiting in the wings are decisions about a new home for the Health Department and Social Services, a new jail and a stand-alone 911 call center. Those and other concerns will be addressed next month when commissioners hold a two-day planning retreat.

The county also was able to maintain its level of school funding, while beginning a $16 million school construction project. Also, the groundwork was laid for a new senior citizens building and a new Steele Memorial Library in Mount Olive.

"One of the things that I am real proud of is that we got the (federal) Qualified School Bonds, $15 million," Bell said. "That is going to help us finish that job over at Eastern Wayne and Norwayne middle schools. They are going to have essentially two new schools when we complete those jobs.

"We are going to use lottery funds to make the payments. We will be spending very little of county money for those two projects. That is a great help, too."

The property revaluation looked at 65,000 parcels of land and properties. Yet, only about 2 percent of the people out of that 65,000 appealed what the county tax department and staff came up with, Bell said.

"I thought that was good," he said. "We were able to maintain our budget and had a revenue neutral tax rate," he said. "We did not have to raise the rate. We are going to collect the same amount of money we did the year before.

"We were able to maintain our school budget. We give them anywhere from $20 million to $22 million a year. With all of the cuts, we were able to maintain that without having a shortfall with them."

The airport runway was resurfaced and new LED lights are being installed.

"That was a $3.4 million project, I believe it was, and it only cost the county about $40,000," Bell said.

The economic downturn all but stopped county capital projects. However, one accomplishment that Bell is proud of is the purchase of a building that will eventually house the county's senior citizens center. Another is the Mount Olive library.

Several years ago the county paid $400,000 for the old Belk's department store building that will house the library and the community came up with another $350,000 for the engineering and architectural work.

"That is going to save the county a lot of money because we did not have to spend money from the county's budget," Bell said. "The people of the Mount Olive area got out and raised that $350,000. We should be getting the plans and schematics pretty soon."

Also under way is work on the county's $10 million emergency communications system. The system has been criticized by some in the county for being plagued by interference and not working as promised.

Bell thinks those problems will be resolved.

"I think they have come a long way with that radio system," Bell said. "I think they have found out just about what has been causing the dropped calls and are working that. There are a lot of radios out there that can cause interference. We have got to find out from the FCC how we can manage the radios that people have and are illegally using them. I think we are getting there."

A new 911 call center will be among topics discussed at the planning retreat, he said.