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The Avery County Board of Commissioners, Finance Officer and County Manager are working in conjunction with the heads of the various county departments to finalize the budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year despite an uncertain economic forecast.

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Commissioners are in the process of finalizing the county’s fiscal year budget in conjunction with its various departments, including the Fire Association, Sheriff’s Office and school system.

Fire Association

Avery County Firefighters Association President Scott Stansberry gave an update to their board on the budget of the 13-member association. The association is expecting Insurance Services Office (ISO) fire ratings across the county to improve from a nine to a six, thus lowering insurance costs for residences.

“What this says is that we’re better prepared to fight fires and go on calls and perform the emergency services that we’re supposed to do,” Stansberry said.

Stansberry said the improved insurance rating justifies the county’s fire tax and full-time positions at various fire departments. The departments are also stepping up recruiting efforts due to decreasing volunteer numbers. The cost to train volunteers has become more expensive since more training certifications are now required.

Despite the increased costs, the group has worked over the years to clean up the budgets of its various departments.

“We thought it wasn’t right for volunteer fire departments to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” Stansberry said.

Stansberry said an area of concern is the lack of a long-term capital plan to “flip our truck inventory.” The price of fire engines and trucks has increased through the years. Stansberry cited that prices for new engines now range from $300,000 to more than $600,000.

Additional capital concerns that Stansberry noted that needed addressed over time include the sinking floor at the Elk Park Fire Department and a large crack in the wall, which causes a higher heating bill, at Banner Elk Volunteer Fire and Rescue. Maintenance of fire department facilities are also included in the budget allotment. Stansberry said the budget is balanced properly.

Avery County Sheriff’s Office

Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye said that his office had cut $86,586 out of its proposed budget. County officials are expecting to see a decrease in sales tax revenue due to a slow tourism season and high unemployment numbers. The commissioners and county manager are preparing the annual budget accordingly.

“We don’t know what the economic situation is going to be. So we’re not saying, ‘Do this.’ We’re saying, ‘Please look at it as it is laid out in your books,’” Frye said.

The Sheriff’s Office was able to trim its budget by making adjustments to several large line items. The office swapped out allocations for four Dodge Durangos, opting instead for Dodge Chargers, which Frye said would be popular with local kids. The office is also maintaining its budget allocations for uniforms and equipment for Special Response Training, which include bulletproof vests and similar items for high-intensity situations.

The commissioners questioned Frye about medical expenses at the Avery County Jail, which the county has had to cover with budget amendments at past meetings. Frye reassured the board that the Sheriff’s Office is doing everything it can to keep medical costs to a minimum.

The office’s medical contract covers medical malpractice as well as a nurse who visits the jail for four hours each day for four days out of the week. Frye said that the medical provider pays for part of the cost and the Sheriff’s Office pays for what is left over. Depending on an inmate’s medical condition, it can cost the Sheriff’s Office a significant amount of money to hold an inmate.

“If somebody comes in and they have a big sore on them, and its oozing... we get them out of there. We get the magistrate to write an unsecured bond. I went through judges and got to unsecure bond them. We get them out. We don’t want that medical cost. We get them out as quick as we can. We want to keep medical problems to a minimum,” Frye said.

However, some situations warrant the Sheriff’s Office to absorb the medical costs due to an inmate’s direct threat to the community.

“[We] can’t let a murderer or someone who killed somebody out. That’s just the way it is. If it had been somebody writing worthless checks, I’d get them out. [We] can’t do that when they’ve stabbed someone,” Frye added.

The Sheriff’s Office allocated $125,000 in its proposed budget to cover medical costs.

Frye also presented a plan to the commissioners that would offer bonuses to deputies in order to help the office attract and retain experienced officers. Frye said officers have been transferring to Banner Elk or Beech Mountain after doing their training with ACSO. Frye added that the bonuses would be in addition to the current pay scale and benefits, and he would also like to see incentives for officers to pursue educational opportunities.

“An officer with a high school diploma is 40 times more likely to get the county into a lawsuit than an officer with a bachelor’s degree,” Frye said.

Frye said he would not expect the commissioners to approve the incentive plan due to the economic uncertainties, but said he hopes there will be a future date when the financial situation can make it possible. The incentive plan would give a one-time, four to eight percent increase in salary to officers who are hitting marks set by the office.

Avery County Schools

Avery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said during budget discussion with the commissioners that the school system is expecting to operate under a “status-quo” budget and does not expect the county to fully fund all items.

Finance Officer Jeffery Jaynes said that the estimated budget sits at around $5.8 million. The universal pre-K program would take approximately $70,000 to fund with the majority of that funding being used to cover salaries. The pre-K program, which is the school system’s lone expansion item, would utilize five classrooms, one in each elementary school, and serve 90 students. Jaynes said the school system is approximately $7,000 short in state funding for the program and does not want to turn anyone away.

The school system uses state or federal funds to pay the salaries of the school system’s 46.23 employees, while county funds are typically allocated toward capital needs.

“We’re not putting a great deal of local money into classrooms. We’re taking state money to do that because with state money we can’t fund the building, we can’t fund the boiler and we can’t fund activity buses with state money,” Jaynes said.

Benefits for school system employees continues to rise, and Jaynes mentioned that administration does not anticipate the state to issue any type of pay raise despite the General Assembly being the government entity that dictates local public education salaries.

According to Jaynes, retirement benefits increased by 8.8 percent, and health insurance increased by 5.4 percent. The local match the school system is obligated to pay will increase accordingly.

“When the state allotment comes down, they don’t say, ‘Health insurance went up so we’re going to give you extra money,’” Jaynes said.

The school system is expected to absorb $265,000 as part of its budget, which includes the increase in benefits. Jaynes said the school system would not ask the county to cover the additional costs since other funds had been pulled through turnover, restructuring, transportation, nutrition, budget trimming and a shrinking school system.

“Because of that absorption, it’s really a cut,” Jaynes said.

Jaynes said that about 70 percent of the school system’s capital projects are either under way or are completed. The school system has approximately $2.5 million of its budget allocated to capital. Administration has prioritized safety concerns, and has a planned its capital improvements in order of priority.

“Here are some things that we need to be concerned about, maybe it’s not a pressing issue today, but in the next three to five years this is probably something that we’re really going to have to discuss, and it may be something that’s outside of the normal range of what we typically deal with,” Jaynes told the board.

Jaynes reiterated the air conditioning projects discussed during the Board of Education meeting on May 12. County Manager Phillip Barrier asked Jaynes if the county issued the same allotment for capital projects as last year if the school system could fund new air conditioning units by utilizing its fund balance.

No final budget plans were approved during the meeting. The county’s fiscal year begins at the beginning of July.

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