The Transylvania Times -

Commissioners Approve Budget, 12.5 Cent Tax Increase


June 27, 2019

On Monday, the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners approved a $63,936,857 budget for the 2019/2020 fiscal year, including the 10.5 cents voter-approved tax increase to pay the $68 million school construction bond and a further 2 cents to help pay for major construction projects, such as the courthouse or a new EMS base.

The 2019/2020 fiscal year budget goes into effect July 1, but it wasn’t unanimously approved by commissioners. Commissioners David Guice, Mike Hawkins and Page Lemel voted for it, while Commissioners Jason Chappell and Will Cathey voted against.

The overall 12.5 cents property tax increase sets the county’s new tax rate at $.636 per $100 of valuation.

On top of the property tax increase, commissioners have set all the fire district rates at $0.55 per $100 of valuation and are supplementing each fire district’s budget requests from the general fund at a cost of $1,279,600.

The budget also includes funding for the school system, including taking $582,196 from the unassigned fund balance for current expenses. As previously reported, the funding will be made available after a decision is made at the state level on salaries and benefit increases. If the full funding is approved, it would total $13,011,809, a 7.9 percent increase per student, for operating expenses. Capital funding for the school system is budgeted at $1,851,886, a 0.1 percent increase from the current fiscal year capital outlay, in addition to the $6.2 million that would go into an education capital reserve for the bond projects.

Prior to voting on the budget, commissioners made comments.

Lemel said the budget was one that “they could all be very, very proud of.”

Chappell said he would not point to commissioners about how they are “wrong” to vote for this budget because each board members will vote for what they believe is best for the county.

“Sometimes, it comes down to a philosophical difference, and I think this is going to be one of those times for me,” he said. “If this was just the 10.5 cents tax increase for the bond, I would probably be the one making the motion because this is the citizens saying this is what we want.”

Chappell said he has “philosophical concerns” over the extra 2 cents and the changes in the fire tax. He said the county is taking funds out of the fund balance for the fire districts this year and that next year there will probably be a change in how they are funded. Chappell has supported keeping the funding method for the fire districts the same and not going to a “flat tax” or another method.

Cathey said he would not say that anyone is “wrong” but that he would have to do what he believes is “right” as far as the budget.

Hawkins said the new budget has five policy areas he supports. It ensures, he said, that county employees will be fairly compensated as commissioners expect their performance to be “excellent.”

The county will conduct an employee compensation study this new fiscal year to see how Transylvania compares to others.

The budget, he said, also expands on previous board efforts to address capital needs by imposing the 2 cents tax increase.

Another policy area in the budget, Hawkins said, is the “fiduciary responsibility” in education and that the county is getting “better” at addressing it.

He said it’s also important to have “consistency” in the funding method for the fire departments. The method for the coming year is “flawed,” Hawkins said, but is moving toward a more consistent method. The final policy area, Hawkins highlighted in the budget, was maintaining the level of services and being “innovative.”

Hawkins said he doesn’t support everything in the budget but does believe it was a “fair process.”

Guice talked about the public speaking “loudly” in its support of the school bond. He said that coming into the budget process he set the public’s support of the bond aside.

He doesn’t believe, as an elected official, in going to the public every time there is a “difficult” decision to make but the bond referendum was the correct approach to take. Guice agreed with Hawkins on the need for a compensation study as it will help the county to hire and retain employees.

Guice reiterated previous comments he’s made that the county and the public have “chosen” to fund the school system at its current high levels in comparison to other counties.

Guice said he supports continuing to fund the school system at those levels. Guice said he supports a previous board decision to raise taxes to fund economic development efforts and the 2 cents in the new budget for capital projects, particularly the courthouse.

The fire district funding, he said, is the responsibility of the county. Fire department services are changing and are doing more, he said, but the amount of funding should be “consistent across the board” and that everyone in the county should receive the same levels of service.

During two public hearings on the budget, only one person spoke — School Board Chairwoman Tawny McCoy, who addressed commissioners on Monday.

McCoy said she was concerned that generators for T.C. Henderson School of Science & Technology and Brevard Elementary School were removed in the capital budget for the school system.

Guice referenced McCoy’s comments.

He said county administration said the funding for the generators was allotted in the current year’s budget and has been “carried forward” to the new budget, but McCoy said the county has eliminated the funding.

“The only thing I don’t understand is how we can continue to not to talk to each other and we can continue to be saying something different,” he said. “For those of us who are in an elected position, who have to make a decision, I need somebody to clear that up. If we paid for it last year and it’s carried forward, then in my opinion you would not be asking for that money again in this year’s budget.”

County Manager Jaime Laughter said for the 2018/2019 budget commissioners appropriated funding per school capital projects.

County officials, she said, confirmed with Norris Barger, the school system’s director of business services, that the projects in question – the generators – had been earmarked to be carried forward to the 2019/2020 budget. Laughter said the county reached out to an Institute of Government official, who confirmed the county was correct.

Hawkins said he was “comfortable” that the funding for the generators was allocated correctly.

Guice said he agreed with Hawkins that the school system and the county are getting better at communicating, but he was “disturbed” that McCoy didn’t appear to agree with the county’s assessment of the funding status.

He said these communication issues are confusing the public and commissioners.

“I have worked in a world where people communicate, and when there is an issue or problem you talk with each other, you resolve that issue, and then when you bring something to elected officials it is clear, very clear,” he said. “I still don’t think we have been as clear as we should be.”

Hawkins said he “respectfully disagreed” and believed that county staff had communicated with school officials, received information and double-checked with the Institute of Government. He agreed there is a “disconnect” and work still needs to be done to overcome it.

Guice reiterated that he doesn’t believe the county and schools are communicating well.

“I don’t care what anyone says, when you have this kind of issue, that speaks volumes,” he said. “Staff on both sides have got to communicate better. Elected officials should not be put in this position.”

Hawkins said he agreed, but the generator funding was “straightforward.”

“It’s a carry forward, and the rules of a carry forward are what they are, and we are applying it correctly,” he said.

Chappell agreed that communication does need to be better. Chappell, who has also served on the school board, said he understands a “little about both worlds.”

He described each side as “territorial” but both sides also face state law “challenges” that are unique to North Carolina.

“That is what it is and we can’t change that,” he said. “What we can do is make sure that we are talking to and not at each other… If we talk to each other and better understand, I think we can move forward.”

Lemel said that she and School Board member Alice Wellborn are applying to attend a four-part series on how to communicate better among elected boards.

More from the meeting will appear in Monday’s paper.


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