BY KARISSA MILLER
The Iredell County Board of Commissioners gathered at the Ag Extension Office last week for a two-day planning retreat to discuss the county’s priorities and challenges as the 2021-22 budget season approaches.
Here are some of the topics discussed during and after the meeting:
Current Fiscal Year
Finance Director Deb Cheek gave a presentation highlighting the current fiscal year, which ends in June.
• The county has collected 61.83 percent of budgeted general fund revenues.
• The largest amount was $135,179,859 in property taxes, which is approximately 94 percent. Last fiscal year the total was $127,784, 449.
• The bulk of the CARES Act funds have been put into a special fund. The county has received approximately $917,000 in CARES funding.
• Unemployment for Iredell County was 5.8 percent in December and 3.8 percent in January 2021.
“As Chairman Mallory said, ‘The crystal ball is pretty cloudy and cracked right now,’” Cheek said.
Cheek shared the economic forecast by John Connaughton during her presentation.
“This year everybody is really quiet and it was difficult to find much of (an economic) prediction,” she said.
Some of the highlights include:
• Factors that will affect a recovery are the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and the willingness of citizens to take the vaccine.
• Fuel prices are an early indicator of inflation. Inflation is predicted to be 4.5 percent. Recently, gas prices have jumped from $2.10 to $2.48 per gallon.
Cheek is anticipating a rise in fuel and utilities costs next fiscal year.
County Manager Outlines Challenges
County Manager Beth Jones said the uncertainty of COVID-19 pandemic and the potential impact it could have on the county make budget planning difficult.
“Right now, with the CARES Act funds we’ve gotten, it’s helped with our COVID-19 expenses, such as the vaccine clinics, mass testing, additional PPE, sanitizing facilities and things like that,” Jones explained.
“But also it makes it difficult to plan ahead because we don’t know what the future horizon is going to look like and what impact that’s going to have on the economy.”
Jones said that the county anticipates a dip in sales tax revenues because eventually stimulus checks will stop. Sales tax revenue is the second largest source of revenue for the county, comprising 17 percent of budgeted revenue.
“Our sales tax revenues were much higher than we anticipated (during the shutdown last spring). It didn’t (decrease) because of the stimulus checks that were coming in,” Jones explained.
On the positive side, there are still a lot of building permits and building activity. The county issued 1,960 housing unit permits in 2020 and 1,645 for 2019, according to the Planning Department.
Jones presented the initial department requests for 28 full-time positions and 13 reclassification position requests. The total cost if all requests are approved would be approximately $1.7 million.
The bulk of the new position requests are from Public Safety:
• 9 positions from the Sherriff’s Office
• 2 positions for jail,
• 2 ECOM positions,
• 3 EMS positions,
• 1 position for Fire Marshal,
• 1 position for Emergency Management, and
• 1 for Animal Services.
Jones mentioned that the Sheriff’s Office is requesting seven school resource officer positions alongside equipment and vehicles for Iredell-Statesville Schools. The board discussed in great length the SRO positions.
The ballpark cost of adding seven new school resource officers is more than $850,000 and Iredell-Statesville Schools was recently awarded a grant that will cover $233,300 of that amount.
Jones said that she and the budget team will vet each position request by analyzing and ranking each one. She also pointed out that the discussions with the commissioners will help determine which positions will get cut.
“That’s why this retreat is so important. I need to have a good solid direction and know what the board’s priorities are. It gives me direction and it gives me good guidelines,” she explained.
Capital Improvement Budget
The board also reviewed a list of capital improvement and facility improvement projects during their retreat.
The projects ranged from additional parking space at the judicial building to an expansion of kennel space, intake and adoption area at Animal Services. One of the ongoing projects for the county is working to make all county facilities ADA accessible.
Another project on the commissioners’ radar is modifying the mechanical system with an air purification system for the library. The estimated cost of this project is $440,000.
It would also generate a savings on energy and balance out the air exchange, officials stated.
The county has received word that another round of CARES funding may be available. If the county does receive additional CARES funding, there is a possibility it could be used to fund this project.
The Budget Process
Each year, state law requires county budgets to be balanced, meaning revenues and expenditures must equal.
As the official budget officer, the county manager will formally present the proposed budget to the board of commissioners in May.
In the meantime, Jones may or may not opt to conduct future budget work sessions to review expenditure requests and other items in greater detail.
Ultimately, the county commissioners have the final say in what budget recommendations are approved. The proposed budget and budget message must be submitted by June 1. The budget ordinance must be adopted by July 1.