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LIVE COVERAGE: Commissioners edge toward budget and tax decisions

Henderson County commissioners are discussing a $178.4 million budget and edging toward final decisions on spending and the property tax rate for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Leading revenue sources are the property tax, at $93 million, and local option sales tax, at $32.6 million. One big question is whether the board will adopt County Manager John Mitchell's recommended tax rate of 56.1 cents per $100 valuation or agree to board Chair Bill Lapsley's proposal to lower the rate by 2 cents, based on the county's history of building up enough in fund balance to cover any gap between expenses and revenue.

The reserve fund transfer of $18 million to balance the 2023 budget tends to be misleading, Lapsley says, because for the past seven years the county has budgeted money from the reserve account only to not need it because spending was lower than projected and revenue higher.

Public schools

Schools Superintendent John Bryant presented the school system’s $32.4 million budget request, including “uncontrollable” costs locally based on the state budget adopted by the Legislature — retirement, insurance, classroom teacher pay and charter schools.

The School Board has asked for local supplement increases for teachers from 8.75 to 9 percent and for non-certified staff 6.5 percent to 6.75 percent, at a total cost of $310,000. In all, based on uncontrollable costs and the local supplement, the School Board requested $1.45 million in new money.

“Nine percent (local supplement) puts us at the top of the region and keeps us competitive in the region,” he said.

Commissioner Rebecca McCall said child care has become a big problem in the county. Because of a lack of staffing, the YMCA is not offering a summer child-care program and the county is offering only one "summer plus" site when it used to run two.

"If parents don't have child care they either leave their children home alone or they don't go to work," she said.

Among the budget highlights are:

  • The new budget is just $1.5 million higher the current budget, an increase of less than 1 percent. That is well below the consumer price index inflation of 8.3 percent, including 43.6 percent for gas and 10 percent for food.

  • The budget fully funds the county's total debt service of $19.7 million.

  • The three biggest categories of spending are education, at $60.5 million, public safety ($42.6 million) and human services ($35 million). The total of $138.1 million accounts for 78 percent of the budget

  • Each penny of the property tax brings in $1.7 million.

  • The county's current tax rate (and Mitchell's proposed tax rate) is the eight-lowest among North Carolina counties with more than 100,000 people.

The debt service for all capital spending in the public schools and at Blue Ridge Community College is at $15.3 million while the debt payments for other projects total $2.3 million. However, the non-school-related debt service rises steeply, to $14 million, in 2025, when the county begins to repay the debt for a major renovation and expansion of the Grove Street Courthouse and jail.

Blue Ridge Community College

In presenting the college's request, BRCC President Laura Leatherwood touted the college's return on investment. Among the 300 students who graduated Saturday, there were 31 nurses, two surgical techs, 27 auto mechanics, six machinists, five greenhouse workers, 16 welders, 11 IT specialists, nine office administrators, seven in human services technology (social work), 14 EMTs, 10 advanced EMTs, 15 law officers, 42 medical assistants and 43 nurse aides.

"We have a $128 million total economic impact every single year," she said. "There's your return on investment."

The college is seeking a new position to help serve the 140 manufacturers in the county. As for wages in general, Leatherwood said she raised all campus personnel to at least $15 an hour three years ago.

Nonprofit requests

Commissioners are deliberating on 16 requests for funding from nonprofit agencies,.

H3 Collective, the foster homes provider, asked for $230,000 to fund construction of foster homes. Commissioner McCall said state law forbids the county from funding construction of a building it does not own.

Only Hope WNC, which serves homeless teenagers, is seeking $14,000 to make its facility ADA compliant and to offset the cost of water, which with six teenagers in the home is averaging $200 a month, said director Michael Absher.

Sheriff's Office

Among the requests for new funding, the board approved $62,000 for a courthouse security deputy plus $54,000 for a cruiser for the deputy based in part on the fact that the Henderson-Polk-Transylvania judicial district has added a new District Court judge.

Sheriff Lowell Griffin is also seeking funding for some equipment needed to police the Ecusta Trail once it opens. "We're going to have to keep problems from developing," he said. The sheriff also asked for approval of a new animal enforcement investigator, at a cost of $75,000, and $54,000 for a vehicle.

Most important, Griffin said, is a request for raises to keep law enforcement personnel. A local agency is offering a $4,500 sign-on bonus for 911 operators. That agency answered 1,400 911 calls from January to April. The sheriff's office in that time frame handled over 15,000 911 calls plus 26,000 administrative calls for service. His office is competing against factories that are offering $22-28 an hour, he said, urging the board "to take care of the people that take care of us" in emergencies.