Chatham begins budget process by hearing funding needs at retreat

BY CASEY MANN, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/24/19

The Chatham County Board of Commissioners has started work on budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year. Commissioners held the first two of three planned full-day sessions last week, hearing presentations about funding needs for each of the county’s departments.

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Chatham begins budget process by hearing funding needs at retreat

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PITTSBORO - The Chatham County Board of Commissioners has started work on budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year.

Commissioners held the first two of three planned full-day sessions last week, hearing presentations about funding needs for each of the county’s departments. Department heads submitted to commissioners what are termed “heads-up” documents outlining anticipated funding needs and challenges.

“The heads-up information provided at the budget retreat is an opportunity for departments to make county management, budget staff, and the BOC aware of potential issues that may affect the next budget year,” interim County Manager Dan LaMontagne said.

LaMontagne emphasized that the documents are not a recommended budget and haven’t yet been analyzed by budget staff or the manager.

“We do feel that it is important at the midpoint of the current fiscal year to be mindful of potential issues that may affect the upcoming budget,” he said.

“This is the opportunity before we dive into the sausage making of building a budget,” Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Dasher said. “I find it incredibly helpful. It’s one of the unique things we do in Chatham.”

Dasher calls the process, which will likely take five or six months, a good way to come up with a budget as the board and staff work collaboratively to develop the document that will fund the local government’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The presentations also include circumstances that may affect the department for the upcoming year. Different departments have different needs with different root causes for the change. This could mean changes in funding, growth, or changes in priorities.

“A lot of what we spend is to make up for cuts elsewhere,” Dasher said. “Every time the state or federal government cuts taxes, it impacts us at the local level. We have to find ways to maintain services”

An example of this is an increased need from the Council for Aging. Recently, the organization learned that the NCDOT changed the way it administers a grant for senior transportation. The program, which supported COA’s program which transports seniors to doctor’s appointments, changed from a county allotment to that of districts or regions. That has significantly reduced the f funding the organization will receive.

Funding for education intersects two of what may be the most common causes for funding increases in the county—outside funding losses and growth. Education, as a department, is the largest portion of the budget, according to Dasher.

“Growth and cuts over the year tend to impact the county budget because we have to kick in more,” Dasher said.

According to Chatham County Budget Analyst Lisa West, the county receives about $500,000 per year from the state’s lottery funds with some additional funding earmarked from sales tax for school construction – a fraction of the cost of a new school.

In addition, the county invests funds for teacher pay as do many of the surrounding counties. Dasher said the county invests in order to remain competitive.

The second greatest department expenses are in public safety, which includes the Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Management, Department of Social Services, and the Health Department, according to Dasher. These departments are also dealing with current and anticipated growth in the county.

Anticipated growth is causing increased requests from any department that deals with real estate in the county. This includes Planning, the Tax Department, and the Registrar of Deeds. For example, the county’s planning, permitting, and inspections departments are responsible for monitoring development in the county. The county also manages those services for Goldston since the town does not have its own planning department.

The county and the town of Pittsboro share many of those duties. Pittsboro offers many permits for building, but the county performs those inspections. In addition, the county issues all environmental and erosion control permits for Pittsboro.

Added to that, since Siler City is without a full-time inspector after a retirement last year, the county is now taking on the additional inspection responsibilities for Siler City.

“It’s kind of a tough spot from a budget perspective,” Dasher said, “because we have to plan for the growth even though we are not yet collecting the revenue.” \

Dasher notes that the board did not seem to be surprised by any of the departments’ documents.

“It’s a testament to the staff that they do a really good job of keeping us informed,” Dasher said.

Following the board’s final retreat day scheduled for Thursday, the process will continue to move forward.

“We want to be as prudent and as smart as we can be with tax payers’ money—of which we are—it’s our money too,” Dasher said.

The staff and the county’s budget consultant will work together to determine different options based on estimated tax revenue, needs, and what type of spending and debt will be required without  jeopardizing the county’s triple-A bond rating.

These calculations are balanced by the budget goals determined by the board of commissioners. Those recommendations are then coalesced into a draft budget provided to the board for final review in May.

“As the budget is prepared this spring, we will determine if [each item] is something that we need to move forward with, plan for in contingency, or not pursue at the time,” LaMontagne said.

“We have to make hard decisions about what we’re going to be able to fund and what we can’t,” Dasher said. “We try to balance the needs of each department with the county’s ability to pay for it.”

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