Chatham commissioners’ retreat addresses budget, equity, growth

Posted 1/13/21

PITTSBORO ­— The Chatham County Board of Commissioners met for a two-day budget retreat on Monday and Tuesday, with county commissioners and staff receiving an update on the current fiscal …

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Chatham commissioners’ retreat addresses budget, equity, growth

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PITTSBORO ­— The Chatham County Board of Commissioners met for a two-day budget retreat on Monday and Tuesday, with county commissioners and staff receiving an update on the current fiscal year and beginning initial conversations around next year’s budget. Key topics on the agenda included reviewing department surveys, county-wide trends and data regarding early childhood development on Monday, and on Tuesday, receiving a revaluation update, HR presentation on county pay and benefits and presentation from Chatham County Schools.

Meeting in the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center, Mike Dasher — elected as the board’s chairperson in December — piloted the retreat. Dist. 1 Commissioner Karen Howard was absent from the sessions.

Budget Director Lisa West started off Monday’s meeting by stressing to commissioners that a budget helps to forecast revenues and expenses, and is a tool for decision making to help monitor the county’s performance. West added that because the county departments’ needs and wants for the next fiscal year’s budget are still premature, presentations wouldn’t be focusing on hard numbers, as to avoid “sticker shock.”

“It’s critical to demonstrate that we are good stewards of public money,” she added.

Collaboration in Chatham

As part of the planning for the 2021-22 budget, commissioners reviewed on Monday a survey from Collaborative Impact Teams. CIT is a group of six teams made up by county departments with similar job functions that range from topics like natural resources to public safety and administration.

Policy Analyst Stephanie Watkins-Cruz outlined common responses from CIT into themes of needs across departments. The two biggest issues identified in the survey were equity and service availability and capacity; more diverse representation on county boards and committees was a commonly cited example of desired equity. Other concerns included maintaining quality of service as the county grows and department workloads increase, being able to recruit and retain employees effectively and navigating language barriers with residents.

Watkins-Cruz mentioned that certain phases of projects like Chatham Park can also increase the workload of over-stressed departments. For example, residential units planning and review falls under the workflow of issuing permits and inspecting.

She added that part of the CIT’s work is to identify solutions that can be used across departments, not just in one area, as a tool for departments to operate more efficiently.

“I’ve been coming in front of you for two years presenting CIT surveys,” she said, “But I haven’t been able to present a strategic plan and that’s a product of (employee) burnout.”

Growing bigger and growing older

While current estimates place Chatham County’s population at 77,713 for the current fiscal year, data from the State Demographer’s Office projects the county will crest 110,400 residents by the 2040 fiscal year.

“As you can see and as you know, we are growing,” West said Monday with respect to Chatham County data forecasts.

Other state data indicates that about 25% of Chatham County residents are age 65 and older. That would be at around 20,000 residents now, according to the state demographer, but as many as 35,000 residents by 2035. The state also indicates residents 65 and older make up the largest segment of the county’s populace; the current median age for Chatham County is about 49 years old.

Chatham County is tied for the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the state with Avery and Currituck counties, according to data from the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Although the county is below the national unemployment average, West said data doesn’t reflect how many jobs a county resident may have and some people could require multiple revenue streams.

The Chatham County Register of Deeds Office is also seeing growth, which is projected to collect more than $1 million in deed stamps for the 2021 fiscal year. County data show that property taxes make up about 69% of general fund revenue; the current tax rate is $0.67, a cent lower than the state average. Taxes on residential property also make up about 90% of Chatham’s tax base, which is a higher dependency compared to other counties and the state average. The county also outpaced similarly sized counties on spending in education, debt services and public safety.

Backlogs and money coming in

According to Budget Analyst Darrell Butts, two things from 2020 are having a clear impact on Chatham County’s budget numbers: the COVID-19 pandemic and the cyber incident that staggered county systems in late October and is still being resolved and investigated.

“Even before the cyber incident, we encouraged departments to monitor expenses as much as they could due to COVID,” he said.

Butts added the cyber attack knocked out several departments’ computers, forcing many processes to be completed by hand and creating a backlog of available information. While his presentation included revenues and expenditures for the first six months of the fiscal year, Butts said the county’s largest months of revenue collection for property tax were not accounted for by the time of the retreat.

Despite those setbacks, Butts reported that excise taxes from the Register of Deeds Office are significantly higher than last year and county inspections have increased approximately 10%.

Ad valorem taxes are below anticipated numbers, which Butts said was expected. He also said motor vehicle taxes are up 7% from a year ago.

In terms of sales tax receipts, the county is ahead by roughly $800,000 from the same time last year, and has collected around 41.1% of the budgeted amount. He also said every collection month for the current fiscal year has exceeded prior year’s numbers.

Butts mentioned revenue is now coming in from the Article 46 sales tax approved by a county referendum in March. The county initially budgeted for $968,111 for the 2021 fiscal year from the ¼ cent sales tax increase, and collected more than $190,000 the first month the revenue became available. Butts estimated Article 46 could net the county $1.7 million.

Chatham’s children and schools

Other data presented Monday included figures on early childhood development outcomes within Chatham County. Community Partners Analyst Hilary Pollan explained the numbers were intended to help commissioners make better-informed decisions in regards to children’s programs and services.

Citing the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan — a guide laid out by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services — Pollan defined early childhood as the stages between birth and 8 years old. Major goals for the program are maintaining children’s health, keeping them in safe and nurturing environments and setting them up for learning success.

Using data from 2013-2017, Pollan reported the county averaged around 10.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births; the state average is 7.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Pollen also said Chatham County’s infant mortality rate among Black and non-Hispanics is 2.5 times higher than the state’s average.

Other data showed that while more than 72% of Chatham’s kindergarten students were reading at grade level, around 50% of students between 1st and 3rd grade showed reading comprehension at or above grade level, which parallels state numbers.

Pollen’s findings also found Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students had lower reading comprehension levels than white and non-Hispanic students within the county.

“Having only 50% of our children at or above reading comprehension levels isn’t something that’s necessarily great, but we’re on par with the state,” she said.

Pollan did say the county’s strengths were in areas of partnership, resource sharing and delivering high quality services, but added broader communication and improved access across geographic areas could be improved. She also advised improved wages for childcare workers and the county developing a comprehensive early childhood development initiative.

On Tuesday, Chatham County Schools gave a brief presentation to the board highlighting its finances, reviewing its expanded budget request and introducing Interim Superintendent Dr. Randy Bridges, who was sworn in on Jan. 11.

The district said its local current expense fund balance totaled $4,426,570, and that it had been recognized for financial accountability and reporting at the state, national and international level for eight consecutive years.

The district proposed a local current expense increase of $2,530,000 for the 2021-2022 fiscal year to assist with a growing student population, which would bring the county funding to $40,280,000. The two areas of need listed for this request were due to Seaforth High School, a salary supplement for licensed employees and an operational increase for Chatham Grove Elementary.

During his introduction to the board, Interim Superintendent Bridges praised the board for its collaboration with the school district.

“I do want to compliment you all,” he said. “(Everyone) speaks very positively about the relationship between the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education… don’t take that for granted because that’s not the norm in other parts of North Carolina.”

Revaluation update

Also on Tuesday, the board heard a presentation on the county’s reappraisal process, in which all real property in the county is appraised at its current market value. Reappraisal in Chatham took effect on Jan. 1, with 2021 reappraisal notices to be mailed to all county property owners in March. New market values will be used to calculate tax bills from summer 2021 until the next reappraisal occurs.

Though state law requires all counties to conduct a reappraisal at least once every eight years, Chatham is on a four-year reappraisal cycle. Chatham County has 45,564 parcels, and currently 35,764 parcels have been reviewed, according to the presentation given to the board by the county’s reappraisal contractor, Vincent Valuations.

Ryan Vincent, with Vincent Valuations, said GIS is developing a map that will allow taxpayers to view parcels and compare sales to neighboring parcels and county staff is working on an online appeal form, too. Appeals will take place April through August of this year.

Other business in the retreat included:

• A motion that provides clarified language in how it operates with non-profit organizations, which the BOC passed.

• An update from Pollan on county-led, internally-focused racial equity initiatives. The Race and Equity Development Initiative has had initial conversations on how to better engage with staff and community members, and is continuing work to create an actionable set of goals

• The board discussed roles and expectations with staff for the future year, making some updates to its expectations for commissioners, for commissioners expectations of each other, as well as for committee liaisons, the county manager, attorney and clerk to the board.

• The board also heard updates on county pay and benefits, which showed that a pay study was in process and the average tenure for county staff (7.74 years) was on an upward trajectory. The unofficial overall turnover rate in the county was 13% for the 2020-21 year.

Reporter Hannah McClellan contributed to this story.

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