DOBSON — Surry County’s next operating budget will grow by less than 1 percent, but some residents will see their tax burdens increase as a result of fire district tax increases.
On Monday evening, the Surry County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a budget which funds school resource officers in each of the county school system’s middle schools, gives the schools a bump in general funding and helps two municipalities with capital projects.
Commissioner Van Tucker read the motion to approve the new version of the budget. It included funding the resource officers, which had been funded through a state grant which has expired. That cost will be $208,243.
Additionally, all three school systems will receive an increase in current expense funding, a per-pupil allotment earmarked for operating expenses, from $1,090 in the current fiscal year to $1,115 in the fiscal year beginning on July 1. That will cost the county taxpayer $282,675 above the current year’s budget.
Current expense funding and funding for the school resource officers had been a topic of debate for commissioners at a recent budget work session.
Commissioner Eddie Harris had advocated for an increase in school current expenses funding to $1,125 per student, the level of funding in the 2011-12 fiscal year. Board Chairman Buck Golding insisted County Manager Chris Knopf’s total budget figure of a little more than $74 million not be increased.
The board considered taking money from elsewhere to get to Harris’s $1,125 figure. Included in that conversation was diverting funding from the line item for the four school resource officers included in Knopf’s recommended budget.
Another matter raised was the possibility of using about $300,000 from a leftover capital project fund to balance the increases.
Golding and Commissioner Larry Phillips raised concerns about using a one-time funding source to increase operating funds which will be reoccurring expenses in years to come.
Tucker’s proposal Monday evening only used $100,000 from the capital fund and savings from other sheriff, EMS and fire marshal budget items such as reducing proposed raises for some employees from two pay-steps to one pay-step. The final proposal grows Knopf’s recommended expenditures from an overall increase over the current year of 0.6 percent to a 0.82 percent.
The plan also includes funding for a heritage arts and trails center in Elkin – $96,000 split over two fiscal years – and $30,000 to help the town of Pilot Mountain renovate the Pilot Center.
Tucker, who noted this budget was his “first rodeo” as a county commissioner, called his proposal “a compromise.”
Harris indicated he’d like to see a higher increase in current expenses funding for the schools, and Dr. Travis Reeves, Surry County Schools superintendent, made his case for increased funding.
“We are requesting $1,175 per student,” said Reeves during a public hearing on the budget. “We were funded at $1,125 per student in 2011-12.”
Reeves went on to explain the allotment dropped to $1,060 in the 2012-13 fiscal year, then was increased to $1,075 and $1,090 in subsequent budget cycles. The county district has cut more than 100 positions throughout those years, which is about an 8-percent reduction in the workforce.
Reeves, who was joined by the entire county Board of Education, school administrators and two members of the Mount Airy Board of Education, said the cuts have occurred without complaints and while still providing a quality education with a number of opportunities to the system’s students.
The schools are also seeing reductions in other funding sources, according to the superintendent. The upcoming fiscal year has about $544,000 in cuts to state and federal funding. About $277,000 of the cuts is associated with Surry County’s economic comeback.
The county was recently moved from a “Tier 1” county to a “Tier 2” county, a move which is a good sign for the county’s economic situation but results in a loss of “low wealth” funding for the schools.
“The cuts are tough,” said Golding later in the meeting. “A county, with a limited ability to raise money, cannot be expected to fill that void.”
“We do our best to afford all departments what the county can afford.”
Harris noted continuously increasing sales tax revenues and reiterated he’d like to see a higher increase for the schools.
Phillips once again raised his concerns regarding setting up the county with reoccurring expenses it may struggle to meet in future budgets. The county is making a “frustratingly slow” economic comeback, but isn’t the county it was prior to the recession.
“It grows the budget less than the 1.5 percent rate of inflation,” said Phillips. “We need to note, though, when we use a fixed amount of money to cover a recurring expense that money will have to come from somewhere in the future.”
“You’ve got a year to find the $100,000.”
Though all commissioners may not have been completely pleased with the end result, the budget was passed unanimously.
Related to the budget, but as a separate vote, commissioners voted to increase the property tax rates in three volunteer fire districts.
Residents in the C.C. Camp, Franklin and South Surry fire districts will see their tax rate increase by one penny per every $100 in property value.
Harris, who is on the fire districts committee, said the three departments appeared at a meeting and made strong cases for the increases. The C.C. Camp department has not seen an increase in its tax rate since it was formed in 1980.
EMS Director John Shelton called the South Surry and C.C. Camp departments very “efficient’ departments. A new structure at the Franklin department serves as the county’s largest emergency shelter, but the department is having difficulty funding the higher utility bills.
Shelton also noted Franklin is a well-equipped department which is often called upon to provide mutual aid. In fact, “Mount Airy cannot fight a large structure fire without Franklin’s aid.”
The increased fire district tax was unanimously approved by commissioners.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.