Budget kickoff looks ahead at security, $100 million capital improvement plan

Pricing for the planned construction of a fire training facility near SCC’s Macon Campus has exceeded original expectations, but the opportunity to potentially utilize the current National Guard Armory may ultimately prove to be more affordable. Photo by Vickie Carpenter

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Macon County Manager Derek Roland used a mountain analogy involving guns and religion to explain how the county conducts its annual budgeting process.

A younger Roland asked his Baptist preacher grandfather why he needed to read the Old Testament if there was already a New Testament.

“‘Reading the bible is like shooting a gun,’” Roland recalled his grandfather saying in addressing the commissioners in his State of the County address at the budget kickoff meeting Feb. 7. “You have to look back through the sights of the Old Testament to understand the New Testament.”

And so began the nearly four-hour “budget kickoff” meeting of the Macon County with department heads and service providers across the county. Commissioners looked at results of the 2018 County audit, Fiscal Year 2019’s budget – which is halfway through – and looked ahead at Fiscal Year 2020’s budget priorities, the upcoming county Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and Space Needs Analysis due later this summer, which is expected to include $100 million in county investments.

Review of FY 2018 and the FY 2019 budget

County Finance Director Lori Hall highlighted the key areas of the 2018 fiscal year budget including a flat tax rate but $756,000 more in collection and $1.2 million more in expenditures, do in part to higher insurance costs for county employees and debt service. 

Roland noted important capital projects completed in the past fiscal year, including the $796,000 renovation to the Robert C. Carpenter building, the $350,000 Highlands civic center renovation and six new patrol cars purchased for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office at a price tag of $181,000. He also noted a 2 percent increase in education spending, which totaled $8.7 million, including the purchase of 400 new iPads for classrooms, security fencing and access control improvements.

The county has $59.2 million budgeted in FY 19 and $23.2 million in expenditures planned, according to Hall.

Roland highlighted some new expenses this fiscal year including $400,000 for broadband investment, a $400,000 cost-of-living increase for county employees, and $504,000 resulting from a 24 percent rate hike in health insurance benefits. Unexpected expenses that the county allocated included $85,000 for two new MCSO School Resource Officers and $55,000 for courthouse security, both are down payments on items that will become permanent in the FY 2020 budget.

Looking ahead at 2020 

Courthouse security was at the top of the docket for new FY 2020 budget items. Capping a two-year process with a committee of more than 20 members, Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland and Superior Court Judge William Coward presented requirements to secure the courthouse.

“If I turned around and asked anybody in here, if anybody’s carrying concealed? If they’ve got their concealed license, of course they’re not going to say, ‘Yes, I’ve got my gun with me,’” said Sheriff Holland, addressing commissioners at the courthouse’s second floor meeting room. “The reality of it is, they could. Nobody has checked when they came in.”

The sheriff then announced that somebody in the room did in fact have a concealed firearm, and he proceeded to play out a scenario for commissioners to see how easy it was to hide weapons in the room. First, he identified a false bomb in a box on Commissioner Ronnie Beale’s desk, and then, a weapon unknowingly under the feet of Franklin Press editor Ryan Hanchett. Then the sheriff picked up a large, unloaded duty weapon lying on the floor directly in front of all the commissioners. The weapons had gone unnoticed during the first two hours of the meeting.

Holland said beefing up courthouse security requires reducing entryways to two, each protected by x-ray machines and metal detectors at a cost of $58,000. A full gamut of security features to include surveillance equipment and door alarms would cost $133,000 the Sheriff said at the Feb. 12 board meeting. He also said six deputies to protect the courthouse would cost $337,000 per year. 

“I deal with crazy people all the time in my job. There’s a lot of them. There’s a lot of them here in Macon County,” said Judge Coward, who added that some of the people he works with are angry and addicted to methamphetamines. “Just to create a secure building, that’s what needs to be done.” 

School superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin started his presentation continuing the theme of expanded security, calling for classroom door locks at Franklin High School, swipe card entry at East Franklin Elementary, Iotla Valley Elementary and Mountain View Intermediate, and fencing at Highlands school, among other security features. 

“They’re all priorities,” he said, when asked by Commissioner Ronnie Beale if he could prioritize door locks this year, and construct fencing next year. “It just depends on which crazy person the judge was referring to.”

Southwestern Community College president Dr. Don Tomas delivered an update on plans for a fire safety training facility on campus to serve public safety and training needs in the region.

“We pushed the pause button,” he said, when architectural studies revealed a cost $1.3 million higher than the $2.7 million allocated by the board one year ago.

The college has potentially $1.4 million in bond revenue approved but will wait to see if Franklin’s National Guard Armory building could be transferred to county ownership to serve as a lower-cost option. Presently, a National Guard consolidation is scheduled to close the facility in January 2020.

Paying for the Capital Needs Assessment

Davenport and Company’s Mitch Brigulio presented on the status of the CIP process, in its second of three years. The process aims to identify the county’s most pressing capital, or infrastructure investment, needs over a five-year period.

“Over this five-year period, you’ve got about $100 million in capital needs and $25 million in capacity based upon the current revenues,” he said.

As the second year wraps up, Brigulio said the space needs analysis will be ready by late summer. At that point, it will be up to commissioners to turn the report into action items, each with its own price tag.

To cover the estimated $100 million in county improvements, Brigulio reminded commissioners that the county currently does not have a credit rating. Previously, Macon County rated AA2 by Moody’s and a A- by Standard & Poor’s.

“Credit is the biggest impact on the interest rate that you’re going to receive,” he said, explaining that a high rating will determine access to capital.

Only nine counties in North Carolina have the top tier AAA rating, while 48 counties have a AA rating, he said. A credit score would be necessary to enter the bond market or obtain a bank loan to fund the county’s improvements.

Tax administrator Richard Lightner noted that the county is in the middle of a revaluation process. With the county depending on ad valorem tax for some 56 percent of revenue, maintaining stable home values and resulting tax revenue is essential.

Shifts in “hot spots” are evening out in Highlands with interest in properties near high-end golf clubs waning while young affluent families desire to be within walking distance of downtown.

“Franklin has probably not grown in the last 15 years or more,” he said. “All the shopping centers here are down in value because you have three empty ones and stores near bankruptcy and a lot of rental.”

Department heads will turn in their complete budgets by March 15. A recommended budget will be discussed May 15 and a public hearing will be held on June 11. At that time, commissioners may adopt the budget or recess, but must approve the FY 2020 budget by July 1.