The last year has emphasized for our community how county government services are essential during a historic challenge of COVID-19. The vast majority of county services fall under mandates or are required to meet the terms of mandates that are passed on to counties in North Carolina to assure that health and human services, public safety and public education are available to our citizens. The pandemic experience was a call to service during uncertain times that put additional pressure on the resources we have established to meet those mandates and required us to repurpose staff not tasked with mandated services to support the larger operation of pandemic response and economic recovery. Ultimately our county staff has answered that call to service with dedication to our citizens and in support of our community whether that be in vaccination campaigns or in providing spaces for students during remote learning or in assuring the continuity of services in a COVID-19 adaptive world.
Transylvania County leadership always follows a careful budget process that balances mandated services, service needs and citizen expectations against the ability to generate revenue. With a data driven approach to understanding both the need and our effectiveness, we work to achieve maximum efficiency while maintaining quality in good stewardship of public funds. This budget was prepared with the goal of protecting funding levels that are necessary to achieve successful service levels for our mandated services and to support essential workforce and maintain our public capital assets. Last year the budget was prepared during uncertain economic times and saw some large reductions that stripped capital and implemented a soft hiring freeze for non-essential positions resulting in a 6% overall decrease. All areas saw reductions in the budget except for a 2% increase in health and human services and education funding remained flat with opportunities to revisit the budget mid-year as revenue impacts of COVID-19 were apparent. As this budget was prepared, staff worked to restore reductions to the extent necessary and practical.
I am pleased to submit a recommended budget balanced in the amount of $67,891,202. This budget funds typical general fund expenditures at the revenue neutral rate of $.5592 per $100 valuation. The recommended total rate of $.5830/$100 valuation reflects funding the balance of Fire and Rescue Services that cannot be generated from the districts from the general fund instead of from fund balance, the practice over the past two years. The budget recommendation also removes balancing the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund by eliminating pay as you throw and assessing a flat fee for improved parcels instead.
Fire and Rescue Funding Recommendation
Transylvania County contracts with local nonprofit fire and rescue agencies to provide services. For many years, those approved contract budgets were funded by setting a district tax and taxing districts within the county to fund those budgets. Due to uneven property value distributions, the rates at last district implementation three years ago ranged from $.05/$100 to $.14/$100. Last year commissioners decided to set a common rate for each district and balance approved budgets from the general fund through a fund balance transfer.
The budget includes a Fire and Rescue county wide tax through the general fund to replace the funds that have come from fund balance in the past two years for this purpose. Balancing the fire and rescue contracts from the fund balance is not a sustainable practice. Restoring the district method alone would net in a dramatic tax increase for most citizens and a wide disparity of fire tax rate by district. Understanding the Fire Chief’s Association has opposed establishment of a “Fire and Rescue Flat Tax”, I recommend a method of compromise that establishes a district rate and balances approved contract budgets from the general fund. This will minimize the tax impact to citizens and appears to be the clearest path forward for sustainable fire and rescue funding. Commissioners historically have reserved budget review of fire departments for themselves, so the recommended budget is based on last year’s approved funding by district pending the Commissioners review of each budget request to set the contract funding amount.
Solid Waste Enterprise Fund Recommendation
The Solid Waste Enterprise Fund is another area of discussion that has been on the county’s radar for the past several years. The Commissioners made the decision to work towards expansion of the in-county facility in late 2020 that will serve citizens for the next 20 years or longer. The Enterprise Fund has struggled in year’s past to be fiscally sustainable and has required funding from the general fund and property tax in addition to fees charged to fund operations. After reviewing revenue options for the enterprise fund to operate as intended, I am recommending that commissioners phase out the sticker program and move to an improved parcel annual fee of $200. The annual fee will allow residents to dispose of bagged waste and recycling at convenience sites without additional fees and generate revenue sufficient to operate solid waste without subsidizing from property taxes.
The recommendation would be to assess the fee on the tax bill for 2021. Residents will be sent a 2022 tag to be used to allow them access to dispose of bagged trash at convenience sites throughout the county. Under this plan, the sticker program will phase out February 1, 2022 and after that stage, only those with the 2021 solid waste tag will be able to utilize the convenience center for waste. This will assure that residents who are paying for the enterprise fund are the direct beneficiaries. This will also make operations more streamlined by minimizing cash handling at the sites and generate revenue that will sustain the solid waste operation.
The yearlong experience operating essential services in the COVID-19 pandemic has made me thankful that our county is blessed with leaders that are committed to the citizens of Transylvania County and that want the best future for our community possible. Our organization has been nimble and responsive to changing guidelines and expectations from the state and federal level while maintaining both existing services and those additional services needed in the COVID-19 response. We know that the additional demands are not over. Further, we do not know yet what permanent changes may persist after the threat of COVID-19 is abated. What we do know is that we have a resilient county government to serve Transylvania County.
Finally, I want to thank staff who worked diligently to prepare this budget with great thought and care with me during this challenging time. All county department and office leaders should be commended for their work to minimize expenses and still provide exemplary service to our county’s citizens. I want to thank our budget team, Assistant County Manager David McNeill, Interim Budget and Management Analyst Kate Hayes, Human Resource Director Sheila Cozart, NCACC Fellow Brian Farmer and Finance Director Jonathan Griffin for their extensive work to balance the budget and navigate this process. It is my pleasure to be serving Transylvania County with such a dedicated and talented team. Together we will remain nimble and responsive to the citizens of Transylvania County and together we will navigate the impacts of COVID-19 and any other challenges we encounter on the horizon.
Jaime Laughter, AICP, ICMA-CM