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County's no-tax-hike proposed budget tops $88 million

LOUISBURG -- The Franklin County Board of Commissioners had their first chance to dig into the budget last week.

The public will get its chance to express their thoughts on the 2020-21 spending plan this coming Monday.

Franklin County Manager Angela Harris presented commissioners with her proposed $88.8 million budget during the board's May 18 meeting.

The budget does not include a tax increase, but does include modest expansions to the workforce, a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for employees and a $10 hike in the solid waste availability fee -- from $90 to $100 per household.

On May 21, commissioners held a budget work session to further suss out the document.

The only discussed change to the proposal centered around Commissioner David Bunn's concern about the increase in the solid waste fee. He also wanted to reinstate the policy that allowed residents to dump a free ton per year.

"Due to the pandemic and the economic toll on the citizens, I think we're putting a whole lot on them with the other fees, like permits and all increasing, such as they are," Bunn said. "I would also like to see if we could give our citizens the 2,000 pounds free that we took away from them last year."

Harris said those services come at a price. It's just a matter of who foots the bill.

"If we don't have that [solid waste availability fee increase], that's going to be more coming out of the [county's savings account]," Harris said.

"And if we don't have any fees associated with the cost of those 2,000 pounds, that's going to be more cost absorbed by the solid waste fund.

"Auditors did recommend us getting away from the general fund contribution in order to balance that budget," Harris said. "It needs to be covered by fees.

"We did do some comparisons of other counties and we are very competitive, even after the rate increase," she said. "But, that would certainly be a board decision.

"I know any type of increases, especially now, we are certainly very sensitive," Harris said.

Harris also noted it would be tough to back off of the solid waste fee increase as the county prepares to absorb costs associated with monitoring the landfill longer than the state initially suggested. "The problem that we have is the post-closure costs that we know are coming and just this year, we have had the consultants come before you to discuss the additional wells and the monitoring costs, the added costs that are going to occur.

"When [those monitoring wells] go in, if they have any findings, then we have to develop a plan and some of those costs have been pretty expensive," Harris said.

"... All of that played into the decision [to recommend a fee increase]," Harris said. "I certainly didn't want to have to make a recommendation for a rate increase, but the funds will have to come from somewhere to cover the budget to make it whole without a general fund contribution."

• The solid waste fund wasn't the only fund discussed, though. During the May 18 meeting, Commissioner Michael Schriver, understanding that the county will be facing water and sewer needs, suggested that the county install water/sewer rate increases now, in smaller increments, rather than hit customers with bigger rate increases down the line.

During the May 21 meeting, Harris informed the board that a rate study is in the works to figure out the county's needs and the best way to cover those costs. "We are covering the [water service] operating expenses right now and have some fund balance," Harris said.

"But, one of the plans for [fiscal year 2021-22] is to have some rate analysis, especially after the conclusion of the water study and some options are delineated and some decisions are made," she said.

"At the staff level, we've talked about maybe we should move that analysis up if we are at that point for 2020-21, instead of 2021-22," Harris said. "We'll certainly look at the opportunity to possibly do that in the upcoming fiscal if the board decides to do that."

• While COVID-19 has had a significant impact on governmental operations and governmental budgets -- particularly as it relates to sales tax projections -- the county has gotten some positive news regarding the pandemic.
Franklin County, Harris and Finance Director Jamie Holtzman said, are eligible to receive $1.3 million of the $2 trillion the federal government has made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The funding can be used for medical expenses, public health expenses, payroll expenses, actions to facilitate public health measures, expenses associated with the provision of economic support and any other COVID-19-related expenses incurred between March 1 and projected to be expended through Dec. 30.

"I am personally held responsible to account for these funds," Holtzman said. "We do get it upfront, but there is a clawback [provision]. I have to do an accounting for it in October and December and if we don't spend it or spend it inappropriately, they will take it back."

Harris discussed the funding with town managers on Friday. "The money is sent to the county," Harris said. "The counties have the option of whether to share it with municipalities.

"... We'll be looking at is there any opportunity for some of this funding to be use by our municipalities, particularly for personal protective equipment or some of their needs that would meet their criteria and hopefully come up with a plan that would benefit all of Franklin County."

Other highlights of the budget include:

• No recommendation for a tax rate increase. The county's assessed tax base is $6.1 billion -- a 5.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year's budget, Harris said.

That increase in tax base, coupled with conservative sales tax projections, about $750,000 less in overall spending than the previous budget and pulling $162,000 more from fund balance has allowed the county to present a budget that does not call for a property tax increase.

• The budget does not include a transfer from the county's savings account to the solid waste fund. The current budget pulls just more than $412,000 from county coffers to balance the newly established enterprise fund.

• Harris's budget recommends providing the school system $21.1 million to meet its operational expenses and $1 million to meet its capital needs -- both the full extent of what the school system requested, Harris said.

• The 2020-21 budget proposal does not recommend the implementation of a compensation and classification plan that would provide pay boosts for employees. Implementation of the plan would cost the county between $600,000 and $1.8 million -- without benefits.

• Department heads requested 13 new full-time posts. Instead, Harris' recommendation is for four new posts -- a school resource officer in Youngsville, a public health nurse, and two posts beginning in January, a community paramedic and fire marshal.

Those posts, according to County Finance Director Jamie Holtzman, will cost the county $211,000 -- including benefits;

• Beyond the two-percent cost of living increase, the budget also includes $188,000 for an agreement with Open Broadband LLC to deploy the technology, focusing on unserved and underserved areas of Franklin County; $125,000 to craft the county's new Unified Development Ordinance; $40,000 to develop a countywide bike and pedestrian plan, $20,000 to pay for a long-gestating Epsom Park master plan;

The next county commission meeting is slated for June 1 at 7 p.m., which will include a public hearing on the budget.

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Members Opinions:
May 28, 2020 at 12:28pm
A tax by any other name is still a tax. Thankfully, we have one commissioner who sees it for what it is. Nice to see everyone else is asleep at the wheel.

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