DOBSON — Looking back on 2012, County Manager Chris Knopf says there were many accomplishments this year, but more challenges lay ahead.
At the beginning of the year the county was struggling with a financial bleed in the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center’s home health care division, Knopf said.
“I think from the county’s perspective, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is the sale of the home health agency,” he said. “Considering the losses the county was taking in operating the agency, to receive what we did for it was a huge positive for the citizens, despite some public outcry when the sale was announced.”
Over the past several years the agency was costing the county’s taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
In August the Board of Commissioners voted to sell the agency to United Home Care Inc., for $2.5 million.
“When you look at what we received for it versus what the county was losing every year, I think the sale ended up being a financial positive,” Knopf said.
Another proud moment, according to the county manager, came just recently with the county’s annual audit report.
“We saw the county’s available fund balance increase this year,” he said. “That was a huge positive for us, and a change in the trend of the past few years.”
In November, Erica Brown, senior audit manager for Martin, Starnes & Associates, told the Board of Commissioners that the county had received the best opinion it could get.
The county’s available fund balance, which is unencumbered money that can be used for local obligations, increased by two percent.
Knopf credits a tight-fisted Board of Commissioners with the positive fund balance.
“In the past few years we’ve seen a decrease in the available fund balance, and it’s just great to reverse that trend,” he said. “That was a huge positive, and a change in the trend because the board has really looked hard a operations and found ways to trim the budget back.”
A third positive accomplishment is the methane project at the county’s landfill, which will capture escaping gas and use it for fuel.
“There have been a lot of things this year that we can be proud of, but those are three things that stick out in my mind,” Knopf said.
But everything isn’t all roses and cotton candy.
“There will be continuing challenges in the county’s budget, but with the board we have in place, we’ll work through it,” Knopf said hopefully. “Where will we be? It’s hard to tell at this point, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see.”
Knopf’s goals for 2013 include putting together a balanced budget, and with this being his first time at the county’s helm he’s working hard on the process already.
“I’m probably going to be spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for the budget process,” he said. “In the past, there’s been a well-seasoned manager preparing the budget and this is my first time. I’m going to make sure the process is as seamless as possible.”
Like much of the rest of the country, the county’s jobless rate continues to be a challenge, Knopf said.
“I know the rate has dropped a little over the past couple of years, but there are a whole lot of folks out there who’s benefits have simply run out, so I think our actual rate is higher than reported,” he said.
But this month’s announcement of 37 high-paying jobs coming to the area with the Willow Tex announcement is a ray of hope, Knopf said.
“We’re seeing some positive activity, and want that to continue next year,” he said. “The Board of Commissioners is very tuned in to the county’s unemployment rate, but the creation of a new tax base is also important, so we have to ensure that the business climate in the county is there to make it happen.”
In an effort to make the county attractive to prospective employers, Knopf said he is going to continue to focus on acquiring marketable properties.
“The available properties in the county that are suited for industrial development are starting to become occupied, so we’re going to be challenges over the next five years or so to develop properties that will be attractive to new industries,” he said.
Overall, however, Knopf said he is proud of the work the county has done this year, and is hopeful for the future.
“I think we’ve done a good job of tightening our belts over the past couple of years, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said. “On the economic front, there are positive activities and announcements of jobs at the end of the year, so that’s a positive.
“And with activity going the other direction from closings and recent layoffs, I think there are some positive things going forward, and I’m excited about next year.
“We certainly have some positive things to build on,” he added.
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.