County budget leaves little wiggle room

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 23, 2013

SALISBURY — Rowan County is right on track with this year’s budget, but it may not have much money next year to make up for any state or federal cuts.
Rowan County Manager Gary Page said the county’s revenues should continue to hold steady or even go up, if the economy continues to recover and the federal government solves its own budget issues.
According to Finance Director Leslie Hedrick, the county is on track to come out $500,000 ahead in this year’s budget by June 30. That’s a positive amount, but Commissioner Chad Mitchell said it’s still a “razor-thin margin.”
In the past, conservative budgeting has sometimes left the county with more than $1 million in surplus funds.”
For the fiscal year starting July 1, Page said he wouldn’t propose cutting funding to Rowan-Salisbury Schools even if there are fewer students. But the county can’t make up for a potential $2 million shortfall at the school system caused by lost stimulus money and state funding.
“How do you make up $2 million if you’re only netting $500,000 yourself?” Page said.
Page’s financial update began a work session that commissioners held Tuesday before their regular meeting. One by one, each commissioner presented ideas that he’d like to see in the 2012-13 budget.
This year, buildings towered over much of the discussion at the budget workshop.
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce, along with Commissioners Chad Mitchell and Jon Barber, said moving the county board of elections to a bigger space is a top priority.
“It’s not good for handicapped access,” Mitchell said. “It cannot be used as early voting site, which puts stress on the other sites. We can’t bring that many people through our building at given time, at least not conveniently.”
Chairman Jim Sides agreed that something needs to be done to help the elections office, but some issues could be addressed without moving it. The county could also look at what it would take to reduce the number of precincts, which would lower the office’s workload and paperwork.
Sides, Barber and Commissioner Mike Caskey said they want to find a use for both of the vacant buildings that used to house the county’s Department of Social Services.
Sides said he would like to offer either building – the one on West Innes Street or the one on Mahaley Avenue – as a temporary office for Rowan-Salisbury School System administration staff. That would help them relocate from the dilapidated Long Street building while they work on a truly consolidated office, he said.
“We do need to use them for something or go ahead and sell them,”
Caskey said.
One of the buildings could be used as a business incubator, Pierce said, where small businesses could start out together before growing large enough to make it on their own. It could also house the offices of RowanWorks Economic Development, so that many of the county’s business resources are in one place.
Mitchell said a business incubator would be good for the county’s economic development, and it could work even if neither of the buildings is available.
Sides and Barber suggested asking RowanWorks to come up with a recommendation for how they would move forward with the idea. Commissioners agreed to direct staff to make that request.
Sides also said that he’d welcome any ideas for selling some of the county’s other surplus properties to get them onto the property tax rolls.

A few other suggestions Tuesday would affect county employees.
Mitchell suggested a merit raise or tiered cost-of-living raise, but he said he wouldn’t support an across-the-board pay increase. Caskey agreed.
Barber said he would like to see raises as part of a larger employee recognition program to show appreciation to county workers.
Pierce said the county should offer an early retirement program for its employees.
“I know that a lot of the time we have lost valuable employees to other counties… it’s simply because that employee has been in that position a long time and doesn’t have any way to move up the ladder, because somebody is sitting on top of them waiting to retire,” Pierce said.
Sides also brought up the possibility of adding two positions, an assistant county manager and a deputy board clerk, to help with the workload in the administration office and create a line of succession.

Other ideas raised at the work session focused on schools, health and human services.
Caskey said he wants to see how much it would cost to put school resource officers back into the county’s middle schools.
Barber also expressed an interest in improving school security, and he proposed setting up one of three new committees to look into it.
“I know things are going on in the sheriff’s department with looking at school security, and I know the school system has been looking at policies and procedures,” Barber said. “I think we need to be involved as a board, or at least someone on staff be involved, with all that’s going on.”
He suggested creating two other committees to explore how the county can improve its child nutrition program in schools and help end homelessness of Rowan veterans.
Sides said those issues are important, and he welcomes Barber to do any research and attend any meetings he wants in order to get more information. But he said he won’t be creating committees, which makes more work for staff, when commissioners don’t attend meetings of every one they’re already assigned to.
The county’s early college program caught Sides’ attention, and he said he wants to look into expanding it to allow more students to participate.
He said the program could be started at other schools besides Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, and it could offer a two-year program for a one-year degree in addition to its four-year program for a two-year degree.
He said his grandson applied to the program and met all of the qualifications but didn’t get in, and now he can’t apply again.

Sides offered several more suggestions at the end of the meeting, saying he would be coming back to the board with more information on several of them at a later date.
The county should update its capital improvement plan, he said.
He also suggested improving security at the county administration building by adding more electronic key locks to interior doors.
Finally, he presented two ideas related to county-funded nonprofits.
Each nonprofit organization receiving more than $5,000 per year in county money signs an agreement to make certain documents and meetings public.
Sides proposed revising that agreement to say that these organizations will be subject to the same public records and open meetings requirements as the county is under state law.
“There is a question about whether the fire departments are subject to the same open meetings laws and public records laws,” Sides said. “I contend that they are subject to those laws, and some of their attorneys contend that they are not.”
He also said he has changed his mind about allowing certain nonprofits on the county’s health insurance plan. To qualify, Sides said either most of their money would have to come from the county, or they would have to have taken over an important county responsibility.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.