Commissioner Gary Barber did not vote to approve the budget with a 3-cent tax increase because he said the county needs more. His motion for a 3.5-cent increase was seconded by Chairman Richard Blackburn (after abdicating his chairmanship to Vice-Chairman Barber for the vote) but failed when the other three commissioners did not add their approval. A second motion by Commissioner Judy Porter Poe for the 3-cent increase was seconded by Commissioner Marty Gambill. Blackburn and Commissioner Larry Rhodes voted in favor.
County Manager Dan McMillan had informed the board that a tax increase was needed to pay for the new jail and law enforcement center, that the board had decided when the project was first approved to raise taxes to pay the debt. McMillan proposed a 3.5-cent increase in his budget message for 2008-09, saying less would require borrowing from the county’s savings account.
To pay the debt with only a 3-cent tax increase, McMillan said the county will need to move approximately $897,624 from savings (currently less than $5 million) to the general fund. That money added to the general fund makes the 2008-09 budget approximately $30.3 million. Monies that pass through the county from other sources for various programs and services and other county resources not included in the general fund total approximately $22.5 million.
The new budget also reflects a cut in county salary increases from 5 percent to 4 percent, along with approximately $4.2 million for the Board of Education. McMillan said the county and board of education will share the cost ($161,250 each) to install air conditioning in the large spaces of the three schools without it n Ashe County Middle School, Mountain View and Blue Ridge elementary schools.
The board also approved $48,750 in next year’s budget to provide a Quick Response Vehicle at Blue Ridge Medical Transport to increase service for emergency medical response throughout the county. Volunteers trained as paramedics will serve in shifts to man the QRV as needed. This person would respond to an emergency as backup to the BRMT ambulances the same as ambulances from Fleetwood and Helton (and a proposed one in Warrensville), and be able to provide on-site emergency care until the BRMT ambulance arrived for transport.
This system will be tested for six months and extended if proved necessary. Or the program could be expanded through funding for a third full-time ambulance. The commissioners and BRMT president Robert Poe have discussed the need for additional support at times when both BRMT ambulances are tied up either inside the county or transporting to hospital facilities outside the county.
Poe said there is currently an average of at least three to four calls per year when a third ambulance from BRMT is needed. That number fluctuates constantly.
County Manager McMillan thought this might seem an insult to the county’s first responders with all but two of the fire departments (Jefferson and West Jefferson don’t have first responders) having members who have trained long and hard to provide emergency medical assistance. Commissioner Poe said she didn’t think so, that putting another ambulance in service would only enhance the service of the first responders.
A $2 annual increase in the solid waste disposal fee for the county approved for next year’s budget is in response to the state introducing a bill to impose a $2 per ton fee on every disposal facility in the state in order to start a fund to offset the costs of cleaning up old landfill sites that are causing problems. McMillan said this cost is anticipated by the county, and set to begin July 1 although there is another state bill introduced to delay the fee until December.
In anticipation, the county has increased the annual solid waste disposal fees by $2: household goes from $75 to $77 beginning July 1; and beginning Aug. 1 fees per ton at the landfill will be $62 for commercial, $52 for industrial, and $42 for land clearing/inert debris.
McMillan thanks everyone who participates in recycling in the county. He said the county recycled almost 100 tons more this year than last year. Efforts have been made to make recycling easier at the convenience centers, and the county has stopped accepting cardboard from businesses and encouraged them to recycle.
When asked their comments about the adopted budget for next year, commissioners had the following comments:
Larry Rhodes said he appreciated the county staff working hard to prepare the budget information and his fellow commissioners for their hard work and compromise in going through and approving the budget. This is probably the tightest budget he has had to deal with, he said, and it’s probably going to be one of the tightest years for county residents. The only reason for the tax increase, he said, is to pay for the new jail and law enforcement center. Money for the library expansion will come from Medicaid reimbursements, and the library is used by more than half the county’s population. He is also sorry to have to cut back on employee salary increases, but the increase approved is still above the state average.
Gary Barber said budgets are never easy, and this one is troubling to him because he believes a bigger tax increase (as much as 5-cents) is needed to keep the county’s finances where they need to be. Now the commissioners will have to wait and see what other needs come up and how they will deal with them. “I have a lot of respect for the people here,” he said of the other commissioners, “but I disagree on the budget rate.”
Marty Gambill said there was a lot of compromise and meticulous study for next year’s budget, and he is proud of it and the capital needs it will be covering such as the new law enforcement center and expanded library. He said he was disappointed that no citizens attended the workshops and public meetings to offer their input on the budget. He said these are always open to the public and input is welcome.
Judy Porter Poe said she wishes the county could spend more on the schools, but the commissioners must consider all taxpayers. “It’s never easy to raise taxes,” she said, and it is difficult to get through such a tight budget.
Richard Blackburn said the county is fortunate to have the quality staff it has, and he doesn’t like to put the squeeze on the budget. He likes to have a pretty good savings account, so he would have preferred a 3.5-cent tax increase to protect those savings. “Folks who come to us during the year asking for funds, beware,” he said, “because the money just might not be there. The budget was squeezed one squeeze too many.” The commissioners are expected to be prudent and meet county obligations, he said, but they are charged with the responsibility of providing good infrastructure for Ashe County, and still criticized.