County budget dodges tax increase

The big picture: Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene — seen here in one of the display screens used at public meetings — presented commissioners with the annual budget report; she projects no property-tax increase. photo by Chris Wood

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting May 17, 2011

  • • Sheriff’s Office seeks $1.4 million increase
  • • Nursing homes “dumping” problem residents

Financial concerns dominated the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ May 17 meeting, as County Manager Wanda Greene presented the roughly $303 million budget proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That represents a 1.7 percent increase in spending. The budget doesn’t call for any tax increases and does not provide pay raises for county employees.

Reduction plans submitted by the various county departments trimmed projected expenditures by $7.9 million, compared to the current year — primarily by eliminating 93 staff positions. Only six of those employees will be left without jobs, noted Greene. Some will now work for private contractors taking over jobs the county once did; others are taking early retirement.

The projected overall rise in spending is due to various factors, including building two new intermediate schools and increased social-services and health-insurance costs.

Both sales and property taxes, which account for the bulk of county revenue, were relatively flat this year: Sales-tax revenues decreased slightly, and property-tax revenues saw a small increase. According to Greene, this is the fifth consecutive year the county has avoided tax increases.

The spending plan relies on about $7.9 million in reserve funds — “perhaps the largest amount ever” — to balance the budget, said Greene. Historically, she noted, the county has generally managed to avoid actually spending those reserve funds, and she expects that to be the case again this year. “It’s going to be harder than before, but we’re determined that we are going to save these funds and not use them,” noted Greene.

The commissioners unanimously approved holding a public hearing on the proposed budget during their June 7 meeting.

Sheriff’s Office budget also grows

Maj. Scott Bissinger reported on the Sheriff’s Office’s proposed $27.8 million budget. That’s $1.4 million more than this year’s allocation, despite more than $527,000 in spending cuts. The budget eliminates four full-time positions and freezes four others; it also includes $197,762 for part-time positions.

Most of the overall increase is due to what Bissinger called “inflationary added costs” such as insurance premiums and salary increases for longtime staff. Salary and wages account for 84 percent of the total budget. Those expenses, said Bissinger, are “just the cost of doing business. As people stay with you longer, [they receive] longevity benefits and health insurance to keep good employees on.”

In the current fiscal year, Sheriff’s Office revenues were down by almost $289,000, due mostly to a declining inmate population. In the last three years, the county jail’s average daily population has declined from 431 in 2009 to 396 in 2010 to 375 so far this year.

Last fiscal year, the county seized more than $9 million in controlled substances and related property. According to the report, the Sheriff’s Office used the proceeds from the sale of seized property to help cover overtime pay, training and equipment costs.

Other business

The commissioners also:
• Heard a report from Lee Ann Smith, regional ombudsman for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, who serves as adviser to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee. Nursing-home residents have complained that the staff-to-resident ratio is too low. In addition, said Smith, nursing homes are “dumping” problem residents on local hospitals to get around federal due-process requirements.
• Unanimously approved a social-media policy for Buncombe County employees, volunteers, consultants, service providers and contractors performing business on behalf of a county agency or department. Besides establishing rules for behavior on social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the policy restricts employees from acting on behalf of and representing Buncombe County on such sites without the approval of the county manager and public-relations director.
• Reappointed Bob Jolly, Tony Candler and Michelle Pugliese to the Environmental Advisory Board and appointed J. Ray Elingburg to the Historic Resources Commission.
• During public comment, heard from several URTV supporters asserting that the county’s refusal to provide more funding for the public-access channel violates the operating agreement.

— Christopher George can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cgeorge@mountainx.com.

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