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Page: No good options if Rowan commissioners want budget cuts

By Jessie Burchette
jburchette@salisburypost.com
If Rowan County commissioners decide they want to cut next year’s budget, the county manager says, there are no good options.
Commissioners are set to kick the tires and look under the hood of the proposed 2009-2010 budget during workshops this week.
The spending plan proposed by County Manager Gary Page keeps the property tax rate at 59.5 cents per $100 of value but eliminates 14 positions and includes no pay raises for county employees.
To make the slimmed-down $126 million budget work, Page proposes using $7.4 million from the county’s savings.
Any more adjustments would likely be more painful.
“If they look at me and say, ‘Cut $500,000 or $1 million,’ I’ve got three choices,” Page said recently. “None of them are good.”
To cut $1 million from the proposed budget, he would look at a 1 percent across-the-board pay cut. That would save $400,000.
Going further, Page said he would have to cut positions, including some in the Sheriff’s Office, Social Services and Health Departments.
“At this point, we have tried not to dip into the sheriff’s department,” he said.
Another issue looming over the budget sessions is the request by the Rowan-Salisbury School System for a nearly $2 million increase in county funding.
Page’s budget continues funding for both Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis City Schools at the current level of $1,565 per pupil, the state average.
County officials have heard rumblings that supporters of the schools may lobby commissioners at a June 1 budget hearing to give the system the full $2 million request.
Page said he has heard nothing from commissioners to indicate they want to increase the budget.
“If I could have afforded (the $2 million), I would have recommended it,” Page said.
To add that amount for schools at this point, Page said his options would be to raise taxes or take it out of fund balance.
With $7.4 million already budgeted from savings, Page is reluctant to dip further.
Commissioners are likely to consider some tweaking of the budget, including changes to retiree health insurance eligibility.
Currently, there are about 15 employees who have the required 30 years but aren’t 55 ó the specified age to get the free health insurance.
Page said the board may look at opening a window ó three or six months ó that would allow those who qualify for retiree benefits but aren’t 55 to retire and get the insurance.
Page views the proposal as a potential savings. It would allow the county to replace long-time employees with new hires who make less money. In some cases, positions held by retirees would be eliminated.
Once the final budget is adopted, the county manager said he reserves the right to make changes.
If the economy doesn’t improve by December, Page said more unpaid furloughs for county employees could come in early 2010.
Budget workshops are set for 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday at the Cohen Administrative Offices Building, 130 W. Innes St.
If commissioners reach agreement on the budget Wednesday, the Thursday session will be cancelled.
The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for the June 1 board meeting, which gets under way at 4 p.m. in the Cohen Administrative Offices Building.

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