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Commissioners plan budget review Aug. 20

Originally published: Aug. 16, 2013
Last modified: Aug. 16, 2013

Adam Orr

For Ashe County Commissioner Judy Poe, the announced closing of Gates Corporation by early next year was an important factor in re-considering the county’s 2013/14 budget.

“I really thought this was a good idea because of Gates closing,” Poe said. “We got all those extra jobs from GE, and now Gates puts us in a hole in terms of jobs. I thought it would be important now to take a second look at spending.”

On Aug. 5, Poe and commissioners William Sands and Gary Roark, voiced their support to reevaluate the county’s 2013/14 budget less than two months since the board approved the final budget on June 18.

The review process is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, according to Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell.  

In her time as a commissioner, Poe said the board has never undertaken such a comprehensive review of the county budget this soon after its original passage but said the move is necessary in light of Gate’s closing.  

“There hasn’t been a time when we’ve wanted to go back and take a second look at the budget like this,” Poe said. “There have been times we’ve wanted to implement purchasing freezes, things like that, but we’ve not gone back and looked at each item.”

With Ashe County unemployment holding above 11 percent, Poe said the county must take a second look at the budget to find and freeze expenses that have not already been committed to.

“Raises for county employees might need to be put on hold until we’ve got a chance to go over and look at everything again,” Poe said.

On June 18, commissioners approved the 2013/14 budget in a 3-2 split decision. Commissioners William Sands, Larry Rhodes and Judy Poe supported the budget passage with commissioners Gerald Price and Gary Roark in opposition.

The budget holds the county’s property tax rate steady at 40 cents per $100 valuation, although commissioners ultimately elected to dip into the county’s unrestricted fund balance more than Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell first recommended.

The $33,510,803 budget is more than $222,000 higher than Mitchell’s proposed budget, and more than $700,000 higher than the 2012/13 budget.

“This budget once again relies on a significant amount of appropriated fund balance, as have the past four years’ budgets, a practice that Ashe County cannot sustainably continue year-after-year,” Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell said on May 20.

Commissioners used slightly more than $3 million to balance this year’s budget, more than the original forecast of $2.95 million.

“That was what we were taking out of the undesignated fund balance in the proposed budget, and after the changes that have been made (during budget work sessions) is now $3,056,433, to balance the budget,” Ashe County Director of Finance Sandy Long said in early June.

Merit pay

Poe said commissioners could look at modifying county employees’ current benefits and compensation structure in upcoming sessions.

“The county currently has a step program structure that gives employees an automatic raise based on how long they’ve been here, no matter what,” Poe said. “We’ve got to look at salaries compared to other counties but also compared to other (residents) within the county as a whole.”  

Poe said commissioners have talked “for more than a year,” about going to a merit-based compensation system, instead of giving employees an automatic raise for time in service.

“If you do a good job, then you should get a raise. If not, you shouldn’t be getting a raise at all,” Poe said. “Right now, if you do a good job, bad job, whatever – employees get a raise.”

Review and retirement

“I don’t honestly know if we can adjust this budget much more than we already have,” Sands said Monday, “but we’ve got a lot of people in the county hurting and it would be good to take a second look at it.”

Sands said his biggest concern is the more than $3 million appropriated from the county’s general fund balance.

“We’ve got to operate within our means,” Sands said. “Eventually there will be a tax increase, and we’ll have to cut back, but right now, I want our people to look and see if there is anywhere else we can cut expenses to help the situation.”

Sands agreed with Poe that employee compensation may need to be looked at, including retirement benefits.

“I think all our county employees are aware of things, but we need to make sure they’re aware,” Sands said. “We’ve got a lot of good, dedicated people with smart ideas, and we need to keep them. We need to be comparable to other counties in terms of salaries and benefits and (retirement benefits) are something we may need to look at.”

Sands also said he had “tremendous confidence” in each of the county’s department heads.

Rhodes, however, said he is unsure why the budget needs a second look right now.

“I’m in a quandary as to why this needs to be done,” Rhodes said Monday. “I feel very comfortable with the budget we passed in June, and I don’t see anything in our budget right now that we need to review at this point.”

With the exception of the closure of Gates, Rhodes said the county’s situation has not changed significantly since June.

“I felt like all the information was brought out in June,” Rhodes said. “If somebody else has any additional information as to something that has changed then I need to hear it. That may change my mind, but as of right now I don’t know of anything that says, ‘We need to change this’.”
Rhodes also said its his belief county employees appropriately spend their funding.

“Our folks have always been really good about this,” Rhodes said. “Money that doesn’t need to be spent — they don’t spend it.”

Rhodes, currently the longest serving member of the BOC, agreed with Poe and said the board has never decided to reexamine the budget so soon after finalizing its vote.

“I’ve never sat in on a budget when all five of us have gotten exactly what we wanted on every line item, but as a collective group, we’ve generally agreed,” Rhodes said. “There were things each of us wanted changed in June, but I really don’t know if we’ve got any further information to change (the budget) right now.”
For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.