Commissioners ponder transit service, new sheriff's office personnel

By Mary Ann Enloe | Feb 17, 2017

After a three-hour meeting Tuesday afternoon in which, county commissioners learned from staff of challenges ahead, Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick was asked if he had heard anything that would push him toward a tax increase.

"I'd rather reduce the fund balance by a penny or two than increase taxes," he said.

Haywood County has a healthy fund balance (savings account), at 24-1/2 percent.  State law doesn't require a fund balance, but the Local Government Commission, which monitors public funds across the state and controls  borrowing, has the authority to force local governments to raise taxes if their fund balance is not at 8 percent, approximately one month's operating expenses.

The budget is based on the prior year's tax collections. While statewide and "group" tax collection rates steadily increase,  Haywood's tax collection rate has declined to 97.28 percent from 2015's collection rate of 97.75.

New needs
Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher outlined needs for additional personnel in critical areas.  He made a similar request last year, which was not funded. Telecommunications staffing has not increased since 1999.

"We're not like a telephone company service center," Christopher said.  "We can't put people on hold."

Last year the center answered 140,000 calls, up from 100,700 in 2013.

The Sheriff's Department is requesting two additional full-time telecommunicators and nine additional staff throughout the department.  The sheriff's report revealed shocking statistics on increased drug use in the county, such as one out of five autopsied deaths is due to drug overdose.

Board of Elections Director Robbie Inman explained an upcoming need for new voting machines.  Repair parts are no longer available for the machines purchased by the county in 2000.

After a lengthy discussion, Commissioner Michael Sorrells said, "We want to always make sure everybody has confidence in the election process."

Public Transit to continue?

The county partners with Mountain Projects to provide, at $2 a ride, limited public transportation opportunities.  Public funding makes it possible, and those entities are changing the way the funds will be distributed.

The first decision to be made is whether Haywood County will continue public transportation.   Continuation will require mandated scheduled routes, which are not available at this time.  Mountain Projects Director Patsy Davis and her staff presented comments, followed by county staff member Kris Boyd.

Education represents a large portion of Haywood's total budget and gets its own meeting, which is scheduled for later in the budgeting process.  But in August 2016 their board made an offer to sell the Central Elementary School building to the county for "fair market value."

This is in accordance with state law, which mandates that school systems give their county first option to buy decommissioned county school property.

After much discussion, the board of commissioners agreed by consensus to suggest to the school board that it take a hard look at its long-term needs before proceeding with a sale.

"It's too soon (to be offereing it for sale)," said Commissioner Sorrells, a former school board member.

Public hearings will be held prior to final decisions on the fiscal year 2017-18 budget.  The board was reminded by County Manager Ira Dove that local officials have control of three areas only: libraries, parks and recreation and education.