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Wyatt presents no new taxes budget for '20-21

County Manager Steve Wyatt talks about the proposed 2020-21 budget. County Manager Steve Wyatt talks about the proposed 2020-21 budget.

Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt presented a recommended budget for 2020-21 on Wednesday that keeps the tax rate level and cuts more than $7 million in spending.

In his opening statement, Wyatt made it clear that the coronovirus pandemic had reshaped the budget landscape.

"When the live ammunition is firing and you have certain time frames to make decision you have to make the best decision you can we have had to start and stop this budget and do things very differnly. The bottom line is the economic im pact of the covid virus has not been the extent in dealing with providing personal protective equipment, it's not been the overtime, its been the effect on the economy and it will be the effect on the economy." Later, he said, "So far 2020 is like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by an airplane."

"We have a unique ability and opportunity to rise to the challenge as local governments in North Carolina," he said. On a call with 30-40 other local government managers Tuesday, "There was not one ounce of panic. There was resolute determination to go foward into the coming year and do what needs to be done."

The proposed budget, at $151.7 million, is $7.4 million less than the projected total spending for the 2019-20 budget year. As had been widely forecast, the big hit is in the sales tax revenue, down $5.3 million for upcoming fiscal year. "That's where the issue is, the economy statewide, nationally and locally," Wyatt said. The projected collection of property taxes is 97 percent, down from 98 percent in the current budget year. On the plus side, new construction continues to increase the county's tax base. The projected tax base is $16.3 billion, up $408 million. "We've lived off that growth in property tax value," he said. A penny on the property tax rate raises about $1.6 million. The tax rate would remain level, at 56.1 cents per $100 valuation. The collection rate of 97 percent is the roughly the same collection rate the county saw in the recession years of 2006-09.

Other budget highlights:

  • The recommended budget is based on a 25 percent reduction in sales tax revenue. "I hope I'm wrong. I'm hoping it's 10 percent. But for planning purposes, 25 percent is what it looks like," he said. Sales tax revenue is down $2 million in the current budget year, which ends June 30. The proposed budget appropriates $13 million in fund balance in order to balance.
  • The county's tax rate is seventh lowest among 27 urban counties in the state.
  • Total debt service is $20 million. Debt service for school construction totals $12.24 million, with debt for the $60 million Hendersonville High School by far the most, at $4.9 million. Construction projects under way will continue. "If they are not (under way) then they remain frozen," Wyatt said. Debt service is $2.2 million for BRCC and $5.6 million for all other county government buildings. The county's debt service peaks at $22 million in FY 2021-22 before starting to decline. "Your debt service is sustainable," he said. "We can go forward with what we have on the books now." Commissioner Bill Lapsley said given the historically low interest rates the county may want to explore refinancing the debt.
  • The proposed budget saves $8.74 million by freezing construction and maintenance projects, including $4.67 million in the public schools and $2.3 million at BRCC.

Schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell said he had a T-shirt printed with the words "I don't know" because there are so many unanswered questions surrounding the reopening of schools in August. "People ask me what is all this going to look like? I don't know ... We're working on it and we've got plans right now." He asked for just two new positions — an assistant principal and a technology staffer because of the huge workload increase in remote learning. He also asked for $400,000 costs associated with reopening. Total school request is $30.8 million.

BRCC President Laura Leatherwood said the college never closed when the pandemic stay-at-home order was imposed but pivoted to online. "Early indicators for summer semester is our enrollment is up 20 percent," she said. "We have not seen enrollment growth like that for 10 years."

Sheriff Lowell Griffin appealed to the board to restore funding for sheriff's deputy bodycams. Violent crime is increasing. In the past couple of days, he said, deputies had responded to a barridaded suspect that threatened to set a house on fire, an officer in a foot chase and altercation with a suspect, an intoxicated suspect who fired a weapon and then claimed to have tested positive for covid-19.

"We are all one use-of-force incident away from having our streets full of protesters and to have this information that can quell some of the misinformation that is spread after a particular use of force," he said. "I don't think there's an insurance policy that can take the place of that, especially for that amount of money." Asked whether other local agencies had cameras, he said, "Just about everyone except us has bodycams."

Commissioners authorized Griffin to use $67,000 in asset forfeiture funds to buy 80 bodycams and software that supports them. Commissioners also agreed to another request that Wyatt had left unfunded. Griffin asked for $33,057 to raise the pay of 12 detention officers to the same rate as patrol deputies. The total was $33,057, or $2,755 each.