County budget strikes balancebetween meeting needs, holdingthe line on growing expenses

On Thursday evening the Surry County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to hold a budget workshop to consider the annual spending plan proposed by County Manager Chris Knopf and the board’s finance committee.

As has been the case for several years, the board is faced with some challenging issues regarding the budget, with many departments and agencies wanting — and yes, in some cases needing — increases in funding, while the county commissioners struggle to keep tax rates and fees flat.

Knopf’s proposal is for the county to spend $73.5 million, which is actually lower than the present spending plan of $74.8 million. This in spite of the fact that some departments — notably the Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Services, and the school systems, asked for rather hefty increases in funding.

The budget proposal meets some of those requests, while leaving others out.

Most notably the budget includes $609,000 for the addition of an ambulance and a full-time paramedic crew to EMS. This came after EMS Director John Shelton shared statistics which showed EMS responded to more than 17,000 calls in 2014, nearly double the roughly 9,200 the serviced answered in 1999, the last time the county added an ambulance and crew to the fleet.

Shelton’s request for two quick response vehicles to improve response time in outlying areas of the county was not included.

Sheriff Graham Atkinson had requested funding for three more people — two narcotics detectives to tackle the ever-growing problem of the illicit drug trade in Surry County, as well as a DARE officer to work in the school system.

Knopf’s proposal includes nearly $190,000 for the two detectives, but nothing for the DARE position.

And the schools asked for funding on two fronts — increases in operating money as well as $23 million for capital expenses, part of a larger $179 million long-range capital expense plan the schools have presented to the board.

The county manager kept most funding levels for the school system level, though he does propose doubling the per-pupil funding for student safety spending, from $5 per student to $10, as well as $2 million for special capital requests.

The spending proposal also allocates a modest 1.5 percent cost of living wage increase for county employees, which would be the first such increase the workers have seen since 2009.

The budget plan does this without raising taxes on county residents, a vital fact given the still-tough economic times many Surry County residents struggle with.

No budget plan is perfect, and we’re certain there are areas in this proposal many will find fault with. However, we believe — at least as the budget has been presented so far — that it strikes a fair balance between meeting growing needs of county departments while holding the line on expenses and keeping tax rates level.

The board will hold a public hearing Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the government center in Dobson, along with a public hearing scheduled for June 15.

We encourage residents to attend both. While there may not be a public comment period during the work session, it would be instructive for residents to see commissioners hammering out the final details of the budget, and arm everyone with more information when the public hearing rolls around.