Tuesday, 01 June 2021 22:51

Richmond commissioners approve $55.6M budget with rate increases, cost-of-living adjustment

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County Manager Bryan Land outlines the upcoming fiscal year's proposed budget to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. County Manager Bryan Land outlines the upcoming fiscal year's proposed budget to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. Photos by William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — The Richmond County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year — despite a nay from the vice chairman.


Commissioner Justin Dawkins was the only one to vote against the $55.6 million budget after it was presented by County Manager Bryan Land.

While the budget doesn’t raise property taxes this year, it does raise service rates and provide a cost-of-living adjustment for full-time employees and an increase in teacher supplements.

BUDGET OVERVIEW

Land said the county has made “great strides” over the past several years improving its “overall financial picture, including increasing the unassigned fund balance percentage from 5.03% to 14.58% of general expenditures, and increasing the available fund balance from 11.82% to 19.46%.

The county’s debt burden has been slashed by $12 million — although it still owes $20 million on the Judicial Center and $25 million in school bonds.

Land went on to say the county has been moving away from the general fund’s dependence on transfers from the Solid Waste Department.

The first step, he said, was increasing the ad valorem tax rate in 2018 — which will remain this year at $0.83 per $100 of valuation, one of the highest county rates in the state.

The second step, Land added, was reallocation of expenses from the General Fund to the Water and Solid Waste funds based on the county’s annual cost allocation plan developed by MGT Consulting.

The third step was last year’s controversial change in the sales tax distribution method— which led to legal action from the county’s municipalities — that Land said will increase the county’s share of sales taxes.

“As you know, we are currently in mediation over the sales tax distribution method and the results of this will dramatically affect the financial health of our county government,” Land said.

Land said the budget has been a “tremendous challenge” for both himself and the entire county staff.

While the sales tax revenue is expected to “substantially” exceed what was expected, Land added “need for these additional funds is great.”

“Our employees are long overdue for a cost-of-living adjustment,” he said. “Our fund balance has dwindled to inadequate levels and the current ad valorem tax rate has made recruiting new industry difficult.” 

He added that the lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, which seems to be improving, have impacted every area of county government.

Although there is a “sense of optimism” with the availability of vaccines, Land said economists predict the economy will be affected “for the foreseeable future.”

While the sales tax change has the county “in a more positive position to rebuild our General Fund balance,” Land said that the “extent of the impact on the future local economy remains to be seen.”

Land called the budget fiscally conservative in terms of both revenues and “with realistic expense forecasting.”

“There are funds set aside to meet our debt requirements and to maintain current county obligations and operations,” he said, adding that many departmental budgets were cut “severely,” and some organizations were recommended for funding less than the requested amount.

Personnel costs comprise 48% of the budget, according to Land.

The budget provides a 2.5% COLA — a priority for the upcoming fiscal year — and includes money for merit pay, and keeps the two bonus off-days for full-time employees. And, instead of taking time off, employees can opt for $100 per day. They can also take a paid day off for their birthday.

The budget also funds the county employee health clinic, operated through the Health Department, which is available at little or no cost to the workers.

Land said the benefits of the clinic may not only affect the health of the employees, but eventually lower insurance costs — which the county also provides at no cost.

The original renewal proposal from First Carolina Care was increased by more than 21%, according to Land, but the county was able to negotiate down to a 6.45% increase.

The county requested proposals from several other insurance companies and Land said all but Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina declined to provide a quote — and BCBSNC’s quote was 35% higher than what the county was paying.

Land went on to say that there are “activities in Raleigh every day that the (legislature) is in session that can affect our budget.”

“County commissioners from across this state should work together to not only fend off these attempts to pass more and more responsibilities from the state to the counties, but also to obtain some relief for all of the unfunded mandates that are already placed on the counties as a burden,” Land said.

Continuing, the county manager said that the budget provides “adequate funds” for operations of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and jail.

Although Land’s recommendation of $6,038,202 is more than $500,000 less than what was requested, it’s still $300,000 more than the sheriff’s office received last year.

The amount budgeted for the jail is only around $21,000 less than the requested amount.

“The willingness of Sheriff (James) Clemmons and Chief (Deputy Mark) Gulledge to work with me on saving money for the upcoming has been crucial in my ability to balance this budget,” Land said. 

He added that the budget also includes a revamped pay plan that focuses on retention and recruitment, saying there’s a 17.5% vacancy rate between the sheriff’s office and jail.

The county is mandated to provide funding for Richmond County Schools and Richmond Community College. The school system will be getting  $10.9 million and the college will receive $2.379 million.

For only the second time in the past decade, the county will not be transferring money from the Solid Waste Fund, nor for the third consecutive year will the Fund Balance be raided to balance the General Fund budget, Land said.

“In the past, our available fund balance has gotten dangerously low in approaching the 8.33% minimum recommended by the North Carolina Local Government Commission,” Land said. “In previous years, the only way to balance the General Fund budget required a fund transfer from solid waste or the use of Fund Balance.”

The Solid Waste budget, balanced at $4,162,600, includes no increase in commercial fees, but does increase residential fees by $4.

The $6,445,960 Water and Sewer budget includes a 2% increase in commercial, industrial and bulk water rates, as well as for residential customers.

Land said occasional water rate increases are necessary to keep up with rising costs of operations, including chemicals, utilities and fuel.

“Many behind-the-scenes changes have been made and I feel they have allowed us to operate more efficiently and effectively,” Land said. “Expect more changes that will continue with this trend.”

He added that appreciates the support of the commissioners and staff and that cooperation has been critical in “efforts to weather the economic challenges that we’re experiencing, while still providing the highest level of service possible.”

NOT MENTIONED

Although Land didn’t go over every item in the budget, there is one seemingly important department that wasn’t mentioned.

Under the budget for the county-operated Animal Shelter, full-time salaries are cut from $172,631 this fiscal year to $38,251 for the next.

Part-time salaries, which have exceeded last year’s budgeted amount by more than $8,000, are cut to $13,250.

Many other expenses — including medical, janitorial and departmental supplies, food, spay and neuter — have also been dramatically slashed.

However, there is a line item for contracted services recommended at $328,554.

That increases the shelter’s overall budget by more than $43,000 to $428,029.

There was no discussion of this during the meeting.

Local animal rights activists have been calling for improvements at the shelter, including the termination of director Bonnie Wilde, following two state investigations.

Commissioner Justin Dawkins, left, talks with Commissioner Don Bryant prior to the start of Tuesday's meeting.

WHY ‘NO?’

Although he was quiet during the meeting, Dawkins outlined his objections later in a statement to the RO.

“Holding county leadership accountable for the responsible allocation of tax dollars is a crucial responsibility of each Commissioner,” Dawkins said.

"After numerous hours of dissecting the proposed budget, as well as discussions with county leadership, I do not believe this budget showed the tight fiscal constraint that is necessary to return the County to a solid financial footing.”

Dawkins said that while cost of living increase, teacher supplements, requests from the sheriff’s office were much needed, the budget “did nothing to set aside a reserve for crucial upcoming capital needs, nor did it allow for either direct budgeting of reserves for the fund balance or provide room for municipal initiatives that could benefit all county taxpayers.”

“In short, this budget failed to address both the immediate and future needs of Richmond County, and in doing so made it impossible for me to support.”

Dawkins isn’t the only commissioner in recent memory to include lack of foresight while objecting to the proposed budget.

In 2016, then-commissioner Ben Moss rejected the budget because of a property tax decrease, saying the timing wasn’t right and citing future financial burdens including needed improvements to the jail. Two years later, the board increased property taxes to higher than before.

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 June 2021 10:47