ROCKINGHAM — Despite rising operational costs, Richmond County won’t be passing those along to county residents for the upcoming fiscal year.
The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a budget of $58,925,331 — nearly $2 million more than the current fiscal year — which includes no utility or tax increases.
“This budget is a result of the combined efforts of all department heads, as well as many other employees who assisted with the tracking and monitoring of various revenues and expenditures,” County Manager Bryan Land told commissioners at the beginning of his annual presentation, giving kudos to the Finance Office headed up by Cary Garner.
“Over the last six years, the county has made great strides in improving our overall financial picture,” Land continued.
Some of those improvements include:
- Increasing the unassigned fund balance from 5.03% to 16.97%
- More than doubling the available fund balance
- Slashing the debt burden by more than 50% (around $23 million)
“Since 2018, we have worked vigorously on removing our dependence on the General Fund for Solid Waste transfers,” Land said.
This will be the fourth consecutive time since FY 2011-2012 there was no transfer from Solid Waste to balance the budget and for the fifth consecutive year the county didn’t have to raid the General Fund coffers, Land said.
“It is important to note that we have been very fortunate with our investment income over the last year as well, as interest rates have risen to levels we haven’t witnessed in over two decades — allowing us to increase on our yield on our investments considerably.”
When it comes to debt, Land said the county is still servicing $25 million in school bonds and $20 million for the judicial center loan.
Land said that the budget has been a challenge, adding that although revenues — with the primary sources being sales and property taxes — for the current fiscal year look to exceed projections, “the need for these additional funds is great.”
However, Land said the “fiscally conservative” budget meets the county’s debt requirement and maintains current operations.
The county’s tax rate will remain $0.83 per $100 of valuation, making it among the highest in the state. According to the N.C. Department of Revenue, there are 12 counties with a higher tax rate, including neighboring Scotland at $0.99 per $100.
Of those 12 counties, Orange ($0.8312) is the only Tier 3 county. Two of the counties, Gates and Granville, are Tier 2 and the rest — including Richmond — are Tier 1, the most economically depressed in the state.
Land said just more than a decade ago, the county’s tax collection rate was 93% — but this year’s rate, with less than a month to go, is expected to be 97.5%.
Richmond County is also gearing up for its first revaluation for the first time in eight years, which could, in turn, lead to higher property values and eventually a lower tax rate.
According to the county manager, personnel costs account for about 42% of the county’s budget. This year, that includes a 4% cost-of-living adjustment — half the percentage of the increase over the past six years total.
“This is something myself and our Board of Commissioners made a priority to work in this budget,” Land said.
Full-time employees also retain two bonus off-days and have the option to receive $100 per day instead of taking time off.
The budget also includes funding for the merit pay program, the employee health clinic and — after haggling with Blue Cross Blue Shield — health insurance. Insurance, dental, vision and life insurance policies are renewed at no additional cost.
“As I state often, we must do everything we can to protect our most valuable asset — our employees,” Land said.
Education funding accounts for nearly a quarter of the county’s General Fund budget at $14,417,004, with increases of 4.84% and 4.1% for Richmond County Schools and Richmond Community College, respectively, over the current year’s allocation. Included in the school system’s allocation is an increase in teacher supplements from $1.75 million to $2.154 million, to aid in recruitment and retention.
The county will also offer $728,910 in aid to the six municipalities, part of an agreement after a previous board decided in 2020 to change the way sales taxes were distributed.
The budget for the Solid Waste Department is balanced at $4,518216 — with no increase on residential or commercial fees, despite facing increases to the county from Uwharrie Environmental and rising fuel costs.
Land told commissioners that the county is also re-negotiating a 10-year contract with Uwharrie for waste disposal.
The county will also be hiring two more employees for roadside litter clean-up. County records show 34 tons of trash were collected in the first four months of this year.
The Water and Sewer Department budget is balanced at $6,477,615, also with no increases for residential, commercial or industrial customers.
When it comes to the sheriff’s office and jail operations, Land said the willingness of Sheriff Mark Gulledge to work on saving costs “has been crucial” to balancing the budget.
A plan adopted by commissioners last year has helped “considerably” in recruitment and retention for RCSO employees, Land said, adding that the department has gone from a 17.8% vacancy rate to being fully staffed.
Land said the budget also includes a $0.09 tax rate for the Northside fire tax district, $0.10 rate for the Cordova and Mountain Creek districts, as well as a $0.10 rate for the East Rockingham fire service district — the same as last year’s budget.
The Cordova, Northside and Mountain Creek Departments will continue to receive $7,500 to assist in the purchase of new trucks and the county’s rescue squads — Hamlet, Richmond County, Cordova, Ellerbe and Hoffman — will again be given a 50% increase in their annual allotments.
Following Land’s presentation, Commissioner Dr. Rick Watkins pointed out that more than 80% of the county’s budget is mandated by state and federal requirements, leaving about 18% “to do the work that we want to do … so there’s not $58 million dollars sitting there waiting for us to spend.”
“I think we’ve been very frugal and very good with managing the taxpayers’ dollars,” Watkins added