Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

The Macon County Board of Commissioners spent four hours in the boardroom Friday afternoon hearing from different department heads on needs heading into the 2018-19 budget year. After listening to the needs of various departments, each commissioner took time to share their budget goals and expectation in the coming year. All five commissioners shared similar goals and agreed that the needs of the county should be addressed within the current budget and without a tax increase.

Commissioner Jim Tate was the first to speak and led with his desire to find a way to meet the needs of the county while keeping taxes flat.

“There has been a general increase in Macon County government spending the past few years due to a number of reasons from health insurance to school expansions to technology requirements, and fortunately the overall collection rate and sales tax revenues have also increased during this time to offset the trend,” said Tate. “I firmly believe that we can continue to live within our means for several years to come while still delivering the services that our county deserves and expects.”

While Tate doesn’t want to increase taxes, he does want to see the county’s contribution to the school system’s capital outlay and technology increase, as well as an increase in funding for the library system.

As a wish list item, as Tate described it, he would like to see major renovations to the Franklin football field and the stadium.

“I believe that the greatest challenge at this time will be coming to a consensus on the freshly presented capital outlay plan for the county,” Tate. “There is still much information about spacial requirements and future needs that will need to be contemplated before a decision is reached.  And, for the commissioners to prioritize and set the direction on where and how the county’s funds will be spent for many years to come will definitely be a major hurdle, but one that needs to be jumped for our county to continue to be successful.”

Commissioner Karl Gillespie said that his goals are for the coming year are for the most part, the same as last year.

“When looking at our budget make sure that anyone that is receiving funding from the county budget is getting what they need to get the job done, while implementing it in the most efficient and effective way possible,” said Gillespie. “Utilize the county fund balance to fund some capital projects to avoid taking on additional debt and to fund schools at a level that will allow our students to compete globally.”

New goals for the coming year for Gillespie would be to complete a space utilization study to better prioritize items in the county’s Capital Improvement Program. He also wants to see the recycling centers a focus as he believes so many residents and visitors see the recycling centers and they stand as a focal point for the entire county.

“Perhaps one of the single biggest issues that impact more citizens in Macon County is the lack of broadband,” said Gillespie as something he wants the commissioners to continue working to improve. “Keep in mind the Federal Communications Commission defined broadband as connection speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.”

Commissioner Gary Shields said he wants the board to focus on several infrastructure projects already in the works.

“I would like to see four ‘brick and mortar’ projects moved to the fast track,” said Shields. “ I would like to see South Macon Elementary School expansion complete, Macon Middle School have a architectural summation with cost, review the architectural summation for a new library and community center for the Nantahala Community, and a new Burn Building built on the Macon SCC campus for use by firemen in Macon, Jackson, Swain and Qualla Boundary.”

Shields said he also wants to see the county working to seek solutions to enhancing broadband and internet services to the businesses and citizens of Macon County, support Macon County’s Capital Improvement Plan, support the STEM program of the Macon County Schools, and continue supporting the new Business Advisory Council goals and objectives.

As the county’s greatest challenge, Shields said it’s in a continued workforce.

“Workforce talent and infrastructure for existing and new businesses to include enhanced broadband and internet service,” said Shields. “the recent article in a regional newspaper wrote about opioid use and the loss of a ‘generation.’ Macon County cannot afford a lost ‘generation’ and stay a regional leader. Mental health services and educational needs for the pre-K and K-3 programs is a must.”

Macon County Commissioner Vice-Chair Ronnie Beale wants to see the budget stay flat without a tax increase.

“One of my goals is to keep the tax rate flat while continuing to improve the services to the citizens of Macon County,” said Beale. “Another is to see some of the county’s immediate needs addressed, such as the senior citizens center and needed improvements and new construction at some of our schools.  Also, the schools’ IT system needs some upgrades as does the county’s IT system.”

Beale, who is active on the state level, said he is concerned about how health care will impact Macon County residents and the rest of the state.

“I remain very concerned about the future of health care for the citizens of Macon County,” said Beale. “We have lost several doctors and our labor and delivery services.  Our hospital is slated to be downsized and we may possibly lose MAMA air medical helicopter being stationed here. As commissioners, we should make the future of our citizens AND their health care one of our priorities.  Our citizens deserve the ability to have local doctors and available health care.”

Beale is also concerned with how the opioid epidemic is affecting the community.

“We need to continue to find ways to address the substance abuse problem in our county on a local level.” said Beale. “Our biggest challenge is to realize that there is no silver bullet and we must continue to work to provide paths of treatment and recovery.   We need to address not only those suffering, but those families who are suffering as well.  My personal goal is to have a location that says “No Wrong Door.”  It simply means that, upon entry, someone suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues or their families have avenues to find the help they need.

These are only a few of the needs facing our county.  As commissioners, we must continue to work to improve the quality of life for all Macon County citizens.”

Commissioner Paul Higdon said something he would like to revisit again this year is the possibility of moving the Board of Elections office out of the basement of the courthouse. Higdon has made the request the last several years under the premise of safety of the Board of Elections office, which isn’t regularly staffed with security and is located across the hall from the probation and parole office.

Higdon said he wants to continue advocating for the Nantahala Community and wants to see additional improvements in that portion of the county for both the library and a community building.