Last week’s Chatham commissioner retreat marks start of budget development

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PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Board of Commissioners met last Wednesday and Friday for its budget retreat, kicking off the county’s formal budget development for the next fiscal year.

Only four members were present, as a replacement has not yet been appointed to replace former Commissioner Jim Crawford, who resigned effective Dec. 31.

Budgeting is a year-long process, county staff stressed throughout the retreat, but the January retreat is a chance to collaborate in depth regarding budget decisions. Each year the county must finalize the budget for the next fiscal year by the state’s June 30 budget adoption date; the county manager typically recommends a budget to the board at the beginning of May.

“The purpose of our budget is to forecast our revenue and expenses,” Budget Analyst Lisa West told the board last Wednesday. “We want to make sure that nothing blindsides us, that we’ve done the due diligence and nothing comes up that says, ‘Oh, you didn’t consider that.’ We want to do our homework.”

To start the process, commissioners formulate budgetary goals, then adopt the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), the county’s long-term plan for large financial projects, and identify any preliminary budget problems to allow staff enough time to solve potential issues.

Then the county holds a budget retreat at the beginning of the calendar year to set budgetary parameters, review trends and current year actuals compared to those budgeted, take a preliminary look at the bottom line and, of course, hear guidance from commissioners.

Following the retreat, staff works on developing the next year’s budget.

Last week’s retreat included updates from the county’s departments ahead of their actual budget requests, including one from Chatham County Schools, which can fund more than 80 teachers outside what the state allots due to local funding.

“Over half the districts in North Carolina don’t get any teachers from local funding,” Tony Messer, CCS’s chief finance officer, told the board.

CCS ranks seventh in the state for local funding and 49th overall.

Local budget funds amount to around $40 million of CCS’s current budget, up 6% from last fiscal year and 37% of the district’s total budget, up from 33% the year prior. The increase is due to the opening of Seaforth High School and an anticipated increase in employee salary supplements. Though local counties can supplement the money the state provides for operations, they are responsible for funding school construction and maintenance.

“The relationship between the board of education and this board of commissioners is the envy of this state,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson said. “I’ve been to many different places where this does not occur, and so for that I thank you for receiving this information and considering it fully.”

On Friday, the board also discussed making Chatham County Council on Aging a county department, at the request of the organization and in light of director Dennis Streets’ impending retirement.

Lee Worsley, executive director of Triangle J Council of Governments, told the board the relationship between the COA and county was very positive, and stressed the transition was a collaborative effort, not a “hostile takeover.”

Commissioners unanimously said staff could move forward with transitioning COA to a county department, which means the current COA Board of Directors will become an advisory “friends” board that would remain a nonprofit and act as its fundraising arm. The county also moved from a minimum to a partial implementation to reduce pay compression for employees.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think it can happen in a pretty seamless way,” Streets told the board.

The retreat concluded with commissioners discussing their goals for the budget process. Conversations included the creation of a map of conserved land in Chatham, future public transportation plans, a continued increase in affordable housing, county tax rates, a minority business assessment and ways the county can contribute to Pittsboro’s infrastructure improvements.

“Thank you for that,” County Manager Dan LaMontagne said before the board moved into closed session. “It gives us good direction on open lands and land conservation for sure.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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