For the past three years, the Washington County Commission has adopted a bare bones but balanced budget, while maintaining essential services without any drastic adjustments, including tax increases or employee layoffs.
The county’s 2014 fiscal budget has come out of the starting blocks balanced. Its general fund revenues and expenditures are both about $34.4 million, with only about $3,000 on the plus side of the ledger. The current year’s total budget, including schools, is about $118 million, but Budget Committee members and department heads are still grinding through the necessary gears, and it will be awhile yet before that number can be set in stone.
The county’s school system, which remains in the spotlight as the largest financial concern, is in dire need of money for capital improvements and other expenses. But that appears to be true for most other departments that also need money for operations in an economy that continues to work against their favor.
How many more years the county can continue on this path without finding a creative — or possibly taxing — method of raising new revenue remains to be seen. But on Wednesday, the committee voted to move the proposed budget on to all county officeholders, who will continue to refine their particular budgets and report back to the committee.
Ethan Flynn cast the lone dissenting vote after the roughly three-hour meeting. Flynn questioned certain spending methods, particularly disagreeing with the proposed borrowing of money that would lead to mounting debt in future years.
The Budget Committee is recommending the county borrow about $9 million for capital projects in which general obligation capital outlay notes, general obligation school bonds and rural school bonds will be issued in 2014 to pay for a wide range of needs.
“We talked last week about our capital projects,” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “Making a recommendation today does not mean the County Commission cannot pull items and look at them separately.”
Commissioner Mark Ferguson, who at last week’s meeting stood and said the entire spending plan should be reworked, spoke up again Wednesday.
“All the standing committees have met,” he said. “Has the Budget Committee received recommendations about these expenditures?”
“I think the issue is (the) County Owned Properties (committee),” Eldridge replied.
Ferguson is on that committee.
“I’m just curious if the standing committees looked at this,” Ferguson said.
The debt, which would be issued next year with payments beginning in 2015, will help pay for several major needs, including more than $1 million for a new asphalt plant. The existing plant has been standing since 1974.
About $2.8 million will pay for school building improvements. About $840,000 will go toward reimbursing the school system for capital projects, such as the new Fall Branch roof, the Boones Creek chiller and architect fees. Finally, $510,000 will help reimburse the school system for bus purchases this year.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes said the Board of Education will generate a more specific list of prioritized capital needs and present them to the Budget Committee at its next meeting.
“That’s not something the County Commission is funding,” Dykes said about the $2.8 million. “The school system is funding that. It’s also important to know there’s a $20 million cloud associated with the county concerning schools. I can rattle off $6 million in needs just for the next two years.”