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Rowan commissioners approve 2009-10 budget

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
Rescue Squad funding, school supplies for teachers, health insurance for retirees and down-time for building inspectors were among the topics dominating Rowan County budget decisions Monday night.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners approved a $125.8 million general operations budget for 2009-2010.
To balance it and keep the property tax rate at 59.5 cents per $100 valuation will require dipping into the county’s fund balance by more than $7 million.
County Manager Gary Page made plenty of personnel and spending cuts to reach the end of the present fiscal year, and commissioners sounded a warning Monday night that a mid-year assessment of the new budget could bring more tough decisions.
“We all know, come December, it’s a possibility we’ll make more cuts,” Chairman Carl Ford said.
While he was not happy with the 2009-2010 budget, Commissioner Chad Mitchell said, it represents the start in a decision-making process in which the county will have to move on “in chunks.”
Ford and Mitchell joined commissioners Jon Barber and Raymond Coltrain in approving the budget, which passed 4-1.
Commissioner Tina Hall cast the lone vote against it and questioned many of the spending decisions being made Monday night.
Having to dip substantially into the fund balance is not a good economic model, Hall said. Commissioners faced a budget year when the revenues simply were not there, Hall said, pressing for the need to make more cuts or be faced with a much scarier future.
She called the budget decisions “up close and personal for taxpayers.”
Commissioners went into Monday’s meeting wanting to make decisions on six items. On those issues, here were their decisions:
– They approved a personnel policy change, good only until Dec. 31, that allows employees with 30 years of service to retire at any age with full insurance benefits. The old policy required that the retiring employee be at least 55.
The change allows Major Tim Bost, 53, of the Sheriff’s Office to retire today and still receive free health insurance until age 65.
Page said the change could affect 10 employees, and he predicted that four to five employees would take the county up on the offer before it reverts back to the former policy at the end of the year.
– They agreed to eliminate Bost’s “major” position in the Sheriff’s Office, effective Wednesday.
– They approved Planning Director Ed Muire’s recommendation to assign one of the building inspectors to a fire inspector’s position, to fill in for an inspector who is on active military duty in Iraq.
He will have that job for 10 months, but if building inspections don’t pick up by that time, his position will be cut.
Another full-time inspections employee will see his work reduced by 40 percent, meaning he’ll work only three days a week.
– They agreed to fund the Rowan Rescue Squad at $412,000, the same total as last year.
– They agreed that $375,000 earmarked to provide additional classroom supplies for teachers be given instead to the Rowan-Salisbury School System as a way to save some positions threatened by state cuts.
– They put a freeze on hiring a replacement for Jim Cowan, director of Allied Health Services. Cowan has rejoined the military.
Commissioners passed the change in retirement policy by a 4-1 vote, with Hall dissenting. She warned that commissioners could be setting a precedent that would cause problems for future administrations.
Other commissioners saw it more in terms of salaries it probably would eliminate.
“I’m looking at it as a corporate buyout,” Ford said.
Mitchell expressed some concern that the building inspector whose job was being cut by 40 percent still wouldn’t have enough to do, given the sour economy.
Page said the position will be busy at 60 percent, and the county also was saving by not having to buy a new $18,000 truck. Hall also questioned why the 60 percent position could not be eliminated entirely.
Coltrain argued that the county has an investment in this inspections position, which will be needed again when the economy turns around.
And there are signs that the economy is stabilizing, Coltrain said.
Page said the message he thought he had received from commissioners ó and the reason for this recommendation ó was to slow down spending, make some cuts, but don’t overreact.
Ford said he trusted Muire’s suggestion, which will save more money than an original proposal and, if things pick up, will keep skilled inspectors at the ready. In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 for the inspection changes, with Hall dissenting.
Mitchell made an impassioned case for maintaining the Rescue Squad funding at $412,000. He described how the Rescue Squad was serving as an important backup to Rowan County EMS at a time when the county really should have another station.
Both in 2007 and 2008, the Rescue Squad responded to 113 EMS calls that the county could not.
“We have to have someone to cover those calls,” Mitchell said.
This year, the organization also will be seeing a cut in its United Way allocation, Mitchell said.
But Hall said a $75,000 increase the Rescue Squad received over its $337,198 allocation in 2007-2008 was a one-time allocation. She said the Rescue Squad’s budget should go back to that figure. Mitchell and Barber said they thought the increase granted last year was permanent.
Ford said it was his most difficult budget decision but, given the economy, he agreed with Hall. In the end, the $412,000 allocation passed by a 3-2 vote, with Coltrain, Barber and Mitchell for it.
Hall, a retired principal, argued that commissioners should not be sending the teacher supply money ó a good program, she said ó to the school system to pay for positions threatened by state cuts.
She also expressed concern that the supply money will never be replaced.
Barber said the money which usually went toward supplies actually could save teacher assistant and bus driver positions.
Ford said he heard from only one person who wanted to keep the supply money while he heard from hundreds of others who wanted the money to save positions.
Hall was the lone vote against allowing the supply money to be spent elsewhere.
Ford noted that commissioners put off a final budget adoption until Monday night, fearing that state legislators would pass on costs or seize revenues from local governments that were not anticipated.
“I still feel like something is going to happen,” Ford said.
Page said the budget decisions made this year essentially have stopped the growth of government.
Under normal circumstances, the budget grows $3 million to $4 million annually, just through raises, school requests and health insurance hikes, Page said.

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