While the county continues debating County Manager Derek Roland’s $64.5 million budget proposal, organizations depending on their funding are forced to sit and wait. The town of Franklin met Monday night at which time Town Manager Amie Owens informed the board that commissioners are currently not recommending approving an increase to the town’s fire tax to purchase desperately needed — and required — equipment. The recommended budget for Macon County for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2023-24 totals just over $64.5 million, for an increase of 9.3% over the previous year.
Owens and Ben Ormond spoke to commissioners during last week’s budget work session to plead their case for an increase to cover the estimated $120,000 in debt service payments to purchase two new trucks. Commissioner John Shearl questioned the need for such a request, asking for an explanation why the Franklin Fire & Rescue needed an increase when other fire departments in the county are able to operate with budgets not even half as large as Franklin’s existing budget.
“Why can a fire department operate on $140,000 with two substations and it takes other departments $1.2 million to operate?” Shearl asked. Shearl said that eventually, Macon County was going to have to transition to a countywide fire department rather than the community-based volunteer departments, at which point he sees the county’s municipalities taking over their respective departments. “In my mind, eventually you’re gonna have the Town of Franklin…overseeing the [fire department, and the Highlands fire department overseen by the Town of Highlands, and the rest of these rural fire departments we’re gonna eventually have county-wide fire service.”
Ormond defended the need for a fire tax rate increase and Franklin’s budget by explaining to Shearl that the Franklin department averages 2,000 a year while the department with the next closest call volume reported around 500 calls.
Commissioners agreed to take the fire tax increase from the town of Franklin under advisement while considering the county’s entire budget, which means the town of Franklin was unable to approve its proposed budget this week. The county is scheduled to meet for its second budget work session on June 8 and is tentatively scheduled for a public comment session and budget approval for June 13. The town of Franklin called a special meeting for June 15, anticipating a decision from the county by that time so they are able to approve their budget prior to the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Macon County Schools are also having to pause their budget discussions pending a decision from Macon leaders. Macon County Schools requested a $1.5 million budget increase over the current fiscal year, however, Roland’s budget proposed a $880,638 increase, just a little more than half of what schools requested. Retiring Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin joined incoming superintendent Josh Lynch and Macon County Schools Finance Director Angie Cook at the commissioner’s work session to explain the school system’s budget and justify the request.
Historically, budget work sessions have served as an opportunity for members of the board of commissioners to ask questions regarding specific budget items or to seek clarification from either a specific department or the county manager. However, last week, the budget work session was presented as more of a way to provide the board of commissioners with “on-the-job training” regarding the overall purpose and function of the county’s budget and how individual departments vary.
Dr. Baldwin walked commissioners through every step of the school system’s budget, breaking down how the state decides how much money to allocate to each district and went into detail that at the very basic core of the district’s budget, the school system spends roughly $60 per day per student — of which the county contributes $12.
Commission Chair Paul Higdon asked Dr. Baldwin about funding spent to educate the hispanic population and questioned if the county was allowed to require proof of citizenship prior to enrollment, stating that he was aware that his asking such a question “would make people’s heads explode.” Higdon said that funding spent to provide translators and other services to non-English speaking “non-American citizens” was a “burden on taxpayers.” Federal law prohibits proof of citizenship for enrollment, however, students are required to show current residency and provide immunization records and documentation. Preventing a child from enrolling in school because of the child’s citizenship, immigration status, or the status of their parents or guardians is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that exact issue more than three decades ago, in a case called Plyler v. Doe.
While waiting for commissioners to finalize a budget, the school system is at a standstill. Without the additional $600,000, the district will have to reprioritize their budget.
A bulk of the county’s meeting inlcuded an update from LS3P, the architectural firm working on the propsed Franklin High School project and a report from the county’s financial advisors regarding how the project could be funded. Commisioner Josh Young asked commisisoners to vote on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that the school board approved during their last meeting affirming thier support of building a new FHS Facility however, Commisisoner Paul Higdon said the county needed to finalize a budget instead of disucssing the new school.
With the meeting lasting close to six hours, Chairman Higdon said he didn’t understand why so much of the meeting was spent discussing the high school project instead of the budget, because he beleived the potential construction of FHS wouldn’t occur for sevearl months. However, about $1 million in the proposed budget is earmarked for the new high school build. If commissioners do not decide on the next steps for the school before the budget is approved, that $1 million would go unused, reverting it back to the county’s general fund. If the county is not going to move forward with the proposed high school project, Roland’s budget would have $1 million to spend in other areas of service.
The budget work session also included information from public safety departments including the Macon County Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Management. During this week’s budget work session (scheduled for June 8 at 5 p.m.), commissioners are expected to hear from other county departments — however, Commissioner Shearl requested each individual department be prepared to present their budgets to the commissioner prior to budget approval. Roland explained that was not feasible or necessary as the majority of other departments’ requests were either flat — meaning unchanged over the current fiscal year — or operated within the county’s budget, but essentially independent of county funds, which is the case for the solid waste, which is an enterprise fund, or the health department, which is primarily funded through outside funding sources.
The general public will be given the opportunity to comment on the proposed budget on June 13. Commissioners can elect to take public comment under advisement and approve the budget at a later date or can elect to approve the budget on the same night. The county must have a budget approved by June 30. In North Carolina, if a county fails to approve a new budget before June 30, it can have various implications depending on the specific circumstances and legal provisions within the state and county.
Typically, in North Carolina, counties are required to adopt a balanced budget by June 30, which marks the end of the fiscal year for most local governments. If a county fails to approve a new budget by that deadline, several consequences may arise:
Continuing Resolution: In some cases, if a county cannot reach an agreement on the new budget by June 30, a continuing resolution may be enacted. A continuing resolution allows the county to continue operating based on the previous year’s budget until a new budget is approved.
Essential Services Funding: Even without an approved budget, certain essential services like public safety, emergency response, and critical infrastructure must continue to be funded to ensure the safety and well-being of residents. However, discretionary spending may be impacted until a new budget is in place.
Financial Constraints: Operating without an approved budget can create financial uncertainties and constraints for the county. It may affect the ability to fund new projects, hire personnel, or make significant expenditures until a budget is approved.
Public Perception and Accountability: Failing to approve a new budget on time may lead to public scrutiny and raise questions about the county’s governance and financial management. It could impact public trust and accountability.
Legal Implications: Depending on the specific circumstances and applicable laws, there may be legal ramifications for county officials if they fail to meet their budgetary responsibilities. This could include legal challenges or actions seeking to enforce budgetary requirements or holding officials accountable.