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Commissioners embark on new budget in a quadrennial revaluation year

Henderson County commissioners have kicked off a marathon two-day budget retreat during which they will hear about the county's financial state, hear dozens of major capital and personnel requests from department heads and make a first pass at shaping a 2023-24 budget.

A major factor in this year's budget-craft is the new value of real property countywide based on the quadrennial revaluation. Based on the current budget year at the six-month point, the county goes into the budget-drafting work on solid ground.

"At the end of the year we're going to be in good  shape," Commissioner Bill Lapsley said. "We're going to have more revenue than we anticipated and we're going to have less expenses than we anticipated."

Among the biggest decisions on the table for commissioners is whether to proceed with a major expansion and renovation of both the Grove Street Courthouse and the jail — a project estimated to cost at least $150 million.

Four studies looked at space needs and condition of both the Courthouse and the jail. The studies "very much depict facilities in need of expansion and renovation," said Steve White, principle at Fentress Architects, which commissioners retained to design the expansion-renovation job. A measure of the condition, technology, adherence to state requirements and other factors produced a score of 58.7 out of 100, "which very much put in a light that renovation and expansion are necessary."

The architects identified 416 parking spaces it could create on land owned by Henderson County, about 125 short of the total needed of 540 spaces. White then showed several options for closing the gap, including a three-level parking deck. "We definitely see a deficiency of surface parking and (find) that a parking deck is warranted for the project and this appears to be the best parking deck option," he said.

If commissioners vote yes, the county would be moving forward "in the hopes that some sanity will return to the construction market," County Manager John Mitchell said. "The big choice on whether or not you're going to do this deck plays into the phasing and the laydown and all of it. But it is a major expense. The parking is going to be an expensive part of this and the deck is the more expensive."

Mitchell then called on commissioners to "chew on" the concept of the parking deck or other parking options. In the meantime, the county is inviting contractors to respond to a request for qualifications, the first step in the hiring of a construction manager at risk.

As discussion wound down, commissioners turned thumbs down on a $10-20 million parking deck and instead called on the design team to identify other surface lot options.

This year's budget-drafting process is a bigger task than usual because of the revaluation, which assigns a new taxable value to every home, business, factory, farm and parcel of land in the county. For several cycles now the Board of Commissioners has used the quadrennial revaluation as the base year for a four-year plan for large capital improvements and other major inititiatives for the county and all its departments, the public school system and Blue Ridge Community College and has called on all 12 fire and rescue departments to make their own forecast of major capital plans. The usual practice of the Board of Commissioners has been to set a tax rate in the revaluation year that it sustains for the next three years.