Commissioners pass budget, county employees and citizens speak out
Matthew Hundley / (email@example.com)
County Manager Robert Wiseman kicked off the hearing by reading the budget statement, a written breakdown of the presented county budget. The statement was accompanied by a series of graphs and charts that illustrated the breakdown of funds across departments and compared those numbers to years past. Wiseman also reminded the gathered audience that after receiving initial budget requests from every department, the county found itself face to face with a $4 million budget deficit.|
Wiseman and county Finance Officer Tim Greene reduced that difference to $1.7 million before presenting it to the commissioners to contend with. The commissioners then engaged in more than a half dozen budget workshops to balance the remaining shortfall, arriving at the following compromise.
Departmental cuts: Three-percent budget cuts to every department, countywide.
Tax increase: An additional 2.5-cent ad valorem tax and one-cent fire tax, for a total increase of 3.5 cents.
Insurance: County employee insurance will be reduced to a more common 80/20 plan, which will save the county approximately $229,000.
Fund Balance: Zero funding removed from fund balance, maintaining the emergency fund at 20 percent of the budget.
The first and only citizen to speak to the budget in general was Judith Bowden, who objected to increased taxes.
“Buckle down and do the nitty gritty the way families have had to do,” said Bowden.
Jim Brooks, Ken Jurney, Junior Sluder and Tony Hunter all spoke during the public hearing on behalf of Avery County’s fire departments. Jurney began by thanking the board for the financial diligence.
“This is a very economical place to live and I appreciate that,” said Jurney, who went on to request additional fire tax, citing the savings that citizens could accrue through lower fire insurance if the departments had additional funding to improve their insurance ratings. According to Jurney, the difference between one insurance rating step could amount to savings equivalent to a 9-cent tax break for citizens.
“I am willing to pay one extra penny on fire tax,” said Jurney.
Brooks echoed Jurney’s sentiments regarding the fire tax, pointing to relatively inexpensive call-confirmation software that could potentially raise the fire rating for some departments at a relatively low cost of approximately $6,200.
Sluder expressed his discontent with the public hearing process, including the 4 p.m. start time, which he said interfered with working citizens’ ability to attend the meeting. Sluder predicted that the commissioners would not make any change to the budget. “You all haven’t heard a thing we’ve said in the past 10 years,” said Sluder, who also suggested that since rescue services will now be included under the fire tax, it should be renamed as “public service tax.”
Hunter voiced his concern about the fire service’s ability to attract and retain volunteers by providing benefits.
“It’s the volunteers that run fire departments,” said Hunter.
Following the commentary on the fire service, 10 individuals took the podium to speak on behalf of Avery County Sheriff’s Office: Joe VanZandt, Jason Warner, Jada Coffey, Pat Winters, Kenneth Dugger, Dennis Quackenboss, Dallas Pate, Lee Buchanan, Troy Cook and Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye.
VanZandt spoke to the quality of the personnel in ACSO, and then warned against eliminating positions in the department.
“With the tough economic times we are in, people get desperate, the crime rate goes up,” said VanZandt.
Warner spoke to the commissioners’ willingness to raise taxes, but indicated that the increase was not enough.
“I am glad to see that the commission understands the necessity for a tax increase ... but in the face of the drastic 3-percent cut across the board to these agencies, this increase does not go far enough. It barely makes up for the loss of revenue from the tax cuts two years ago,” said Warner, who said that further increase in tax would not be as detrimental to Avery citizens as reduction in services.
Jada Coffey, who worked as an intern in ACSO, commented on the high level of professionalism in the department, but also noted that it is understaffed. The loss of a traffic officer position, which is incorporated into the budget, was of particular concern to Coffey.
“That’s definitely not what we need right now,” said Coffey.
Winters spoke to the commissioners and the crowd to speak about the value of ACSO, to which she gives credit for saving her daughter’s life from drug use.
“How are we worried about a high school or iPad when we can’t save these kids from drugs,” asked Winters.
Kenneth Dugger spoke to the commissioners to lay out statistics that illustrated the increase in workload at ACSO over the past years. According to Dugger, ACSO received 11.4 percent more calls in the past year than in the year before.
Quackenboss questioned ACSO’s ability to continue its service given the new budget.
“It is critical that we have sufficient equipment and men on the roads,” said Quackenboss.
Pate spoke to the commissioners to describe the extensive record keeping in ACSO that is used to ensure that costs are kept to a minimum.
Buchanan objected to another year without raises and reduced medical benefits.
“We’ve sucked it up about as much as we can,” said Buchanan, who invited the commissioner to ride along with patrol officers to see what they do on a daily basis. “At least come and see what we do before you cut our benefits and don’t give us raises.”
Cook questioned the commissioners regarding the fate of funds saved during the construction of the new jail. Greene explained that those funds were reincorporated into capital funding for future projects.
The last person to speak on behalf of ACSO was Frye, who pointed to ACSO’s many accomplishments over the past several years, including the K9 program, Eldercare, Project Lifesaver, joining the drug task force and an internship program. After listing the department’s accomplishments, Frye objected to the low budget.
“You have cut into things that are mandated; that we have to do,” said Frye, who also addressed the salary of his employees, suggesting that higher salaries in neighboring counties are taking officers from Avery County.
“We are going to lose good officers,” said Frye, noting that many deputies work multiple jobs in addition to their time on ACSO to make ends meet.
Following the sheriff’s comments, the public hearing ended. The commissioners took the opportunity to address some of the issues raised during the hearing.
“Just to get back to where we are normally, there needed to be a tax increase,” said Commissioner Scott Heath, explaining the bump in tax rates. Heath also noted that the sheriff’s office is facing the same cuts as other departments, insisting that all departments deserve equal treatment.
“The sheriff’s office has received substantial increases each year for the past six years,” said Heath, noting that the department has still gone over budget for the past two years, in spite of the increases. “Everybody has to deal with the economic times. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to live within the budget of hard economic times.”
Commissioner Martha Hicks commented on the difficult budgeting process.
“It was very easy until this year,” said Hicks. “We are not as blessed as we once were.” She then addressed the loss of a traffic officer, noting that the state provides four state highway patrol officers in the county.
“I still think our county will be taken care of,” said Hicks. “Other counties faced this way before Avery County did. I really appreciate what our sheriff’s office does and the protection they give us, but I just don’t think we can do more.”
The three present commissioners, Heath, Hicks and Kenny Poteat then voted unanimously to approve the budget as presented.
Following the hearing and the resulting vote, Frye commented on the commissioners’ decision.
“I want to thank the people that showed up to show their support for the sheriff’s office. We will continue to do what we feel is necessary for the protection of the citizens of Avery County and their property. I also want to ensure the citizens of Avery County that we will continue to be vigilant in working against drugs and property crimes, but our job has been made more difficult,” said Frye.