Sewers, school funding top budget talks

Surry County Board of Commissioners Chairman R.F. “Buck” Golding jokes with fellow commissioners at the board’s budget workshop Thursday night.

DOBSON — After weeks of work, the Surry County 2015-16 budget is nearing completion

Following lengthy discussions during a recent work session with the board of commissioners and county department heads, it appears that with the exception of some school funding proposals County Manager Chris Knopf’s recommended budget will change very little prior to Monday night’s public hearing on the budget. Additionally, a vote on the NC 89 sewer project has been all but promised for the next board of commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Larry Phillips presented his findings in a sewer project impact study he completed in tandem with affected landowners and county staff. The project measured increases in property values and sales tax revenues for proposed business ventures in the affected area versus the cost of the project.

Phillips has been what proponents for the project call the “swing vote” on the project, which would extend sanitary sewer services along NC 89 to the I-77 and I-74 interchanges.

According to Phillips’ report the completion of the project would result in an estimated increase in property tax revenue of nearly $790,000 over the next ten years. Based on proposed new business projects, Phillips told commissioners that nearly $962,000 in additional sales tax revenues could be generated over the period of the next decade.

Phillips said those numbers weren’t enough to gain his vote, and the commissioner looked to a “special assessment fee” to fill the gap in funding for the project. However, after receiving an opinion from the School of Government Phillips told commissioners the fee wouldn’t work.

Phillips explained that all property owners in the affected area would have to be assessed the additional $250 per acre fee. Phillips said that’s not fair to residential property owners and farmers who haven’t been lobbying for the project’s completion.

Instead of levying the special assessment fee, Phillips has proposed a plan that would collect nearly $252,000 in pledges from proponents of the project, effectively replacing the revenue that would have been raised with the fee. Many of the property owners stated that they would simply write a check for their portion, but others stated that they would need to pay in annual payments over the course of the next ten years.

County Attorney Ed Woltz halted any motions to award the $4.9 million contract for the project, telling commissioners that he needed to complete promissory notes for those property owners wishing to make annual payments toward their pledges.

Woltz told commissioners that it is likely he can have the paperwork regarding the pledges complete by Monday, the board’s next meeting. Phillips said that the board will likely award the contract to Mount Airy’s Smith-Rowe LLC at that meeting.

According to Assistant County Manager Betty Taylor, Surry County will end up borrowing somewhere between $3 million and $4 million to complete the project. That number is dependent on the status of grants that may need to be re-written to include post-recession numbers for jobs that will be created as a result of the sewer project.

According to Assistant County Manager Betty Taylor the county will incur about $400,000 to $450,000 in annual debt service payments if the project gets the final nod from commissioners on Monday night.

Prior to the lengthy conversation regarding the sanitary sewer project, county commissioners had an in-depth discussion about school budgets. As has been the case in recent months, the discussion regarding school budgets centered around the capital needs of the county’s three school systems.

While the board discussed a possible bond referendum in 2016 for tackling part of the $173 million in school capital improvements that were recommended by a facilities study, much conversation was regarding the more immediate matter of schools “capital outlay” funding.

Knopf’s recommended budget proposed appropriating $50 per student for capital improvements and maintenance, $40 per pupil for “technology” and $10 per pupil for addressing security needs. Elkin City Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe had asked that the $10 per student security appropriation be freed for use in other capital projects.

The end result of Bledsoe’s request was a decision by commissioners to appropriate the $10 for security, but agree to allow Bledsoe to come before the Board of Commissioners at a later date to request the monies be re-appropriated to the general capital outlay budget.

However, Bledsoe’s request did spur a discussion that led to Commissioner Eddie Harris proposing to add $10 to the per pupil capital budget. That addition would cost the county about $108,000. The commissioners arrived at the conclusion of rolling the technology appropriation into the capital outlay rate, and adding $10 to that rate.

In short, that means if the budget is passed with the proposed change the county’s school districts will receive $100 per student for capital outlay which may be used to address any capital need including technology and $10 to address security needs in schools.

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