05/27/13 — County weighs plan for budget

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County weighs plan for budget

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 27, 2013 1:46 PM

With just a month before a county budget has to be adopted, Wayne County officials still do not have firm figures for a proposed 2013-14 spending plan.

Officials say it will be about another week before they have those figures in place for county commissioners to consider.

The county's current budget is $158 million, based on a 70.25-cent property tax rate.

Whether the tax rate will stay the same, whether county employees will see a raise, whether any user fees will change are all still unknown.

It will be at least another week before the county has firm figures to provide Wayne County commissioners for their budget meetings next month. Commissioners last week scheduled budget meetings for Thursday, June 6, and Tuesday, June 11, from 8 a.m. until noon both days. A public hearing on the budget is planned for June 18 at 9:30 a.m.

The board will meet in special session on June 25 to adopt a budget.

All of the meetings will be held in the commissioners' meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex.

Currently, what the county has is a "draft of a draft of a draft," which likely will go through six or seven reincarnations before being approved, County Manager Lee Smith said. The current version is at about "draft 3.5," he said.

Smith said he would have a better grasp on the budget within a week and that the board would have the information by June 1.

County Commission Chairman Steve Keen said the county still faces an uncertain financial future, something he said he and Smith recognized two years ago.

"The last three years I voted against the budget because I felt like the previous board was making decisions in uncertain times," Keen said. "(Smith) works at the pleasure of the board. The board controls the county, and when you see these issues that are coming up on the federal level that is going to affect the state, and you know that in 2010 you have a different march to a different beat to a different drum in Raleigh in 2011 you have got to understand if you really keep up with it that they are going to make those changes, and it doesn't look like those changes are going to be interrupted in 2012. So we had better get ready on the county level."

Smith has directed his staff to operate with the state and federal uncertainty and other financial issues in mind over past 24 months, Keen said.

The financial blueprint, however, was made by the commissioners, Keen said.

"That is what (Smith) has been doing," he said. "This board has inherited a lot of the spending. This board has inherited a botched payroll system. That is still not over with.

"We have inherited a lot of fluff in spending, not by Mr. Smith's direction, but by the previous board's direction. This board wants to take everything and put it on the table at one time. The citizens have asked us to do that. We are only doing what the citizens have elected us to do. They want answers to everything. This is the best way that we feel like we can be transparent."

The budget process has been approached without a specific range for the tax rate or areas to look at to cut or to expand, Smith and Keen said.

After the November election, the board's consensus was that voters wanted to pay less taxes, wanted to cut spending, Keen said.

"When we got in, of course, that was our first and foremost, I guess, thought pattern that citizens wanted, and that is what they elected us to do," Keen said. "So our mindset was let's look at the tax rate, let's look at taxes, let's look at the expenditures, the spending.

"Because again this is what the commissioners ran on -- less spending and less taxes. Of course that was the first and foremost thought out of minds to come out and do that for the citizens. Of course with that, priorities -- finding the priorities of how to do that. That was the procedure we took is how do we get to what the citizens want and fund it?"

Keen denied rumors that commissioners wanted either a 3 percent or $5 million budget cut, but would not comment if there was an amount or percentage being discussed.

Looking at cuts or increases requires evaluating state or federal hits, Smith said.

"There is no real target because you have to look at all the things," Smith said. "It is a matter of how do we operate at the same level or better with loss cost to citizens and that is how we are evaluating it, but there was never a target.

"We have just go to look at everything and that is what we are doing. We have the state and feds staring at us."

The county already is experiencing the effects of the federal sequestration. It has taken a $50,000 hit in the interest reimbursement on the federal bonds the county used for the Eastern Wayne and Norwayne middle school projects.

When the county started work, the federal government was to reimburse it for all of the interest paid on the bonds. A second hit is not unexpected, Smith said.

Medicaid is a "monster," Keen said. Just since the governor's budget request was submitted three to four weeks ago, the program already has a substantial deficit.

"We are concerned about that locally. How it is going to affect mental health substance abuse?" Keen said.

There are concerns as well as to how the state's tax reform and sales tax changes could affect the county. Also of concern is that the lottery money that the county uses for schools will be redirected into the state's general fund.

"We are having to wait on that, and we have that in our mind, too," Keen said. "We have to watch the trends."

Smith said commissioners have said to look at everything.

"You don't look at one thing," he said. "Everything is connected. Look at investment and return. Everything is on the table. We have tried to look at, in looking at past years, where dollars have been invested by the county. We have looked at fund balances. We are taking a look at everything."

That includes evaluating fees the county charges, he said.

"Do we need to cut our cost back instead of raising our fees?" Smith said. "We have stepped back and really taken a look at our operations. How can we be better? How can we perform more effectively for citizens and businesses while still giving them at least the same level of service or at least expected level of service?"

Smith said the county is attempting to meet the directive of the commission -- reduce costs where possible.

"Everything is on the table, but I think as the board came on they made it very clear that we needed to be very conscious of cost, reducing costs to citizens and businesses and we are going to make every attempt to try and do those kind of things," he said.