The Watauga County Commission has now completed over eight hours of review of County Manager Rocky Nelson’s proposed budget for FY 2012. Mr. Nelson calls his plan “a subsistence budget,” an apt description, though “austerity budget” might work as well.
One thing is glaringly clear: there was no “fat” in the Watauga County budget, despite last year’s campaign rhetoric by the three new Republican members of the commission. Cuts at this point go into muscle and bone. If the Republican commissioners had carried through on their aborted quarter-cent sales tax increase ... but that’s an “if” of only historic interest now, the Mother of All Botches. (Urging caution near the end of last night’s final session, Commission Chair Nathan Miller offered this self-critique: “We go off half-cocked enough. At least, I do.”)
The big unknown is still the Watauga public schools system. Mr. Nelson’s proposed budget adds over $400,000 to the schools that had been cut during the last two budgetary years. Many citizens do not understand that some 87 positions were already lost from the schools in the last couple of years. Superintendent Marty Hemric outlined for the Commission additional austerity measures that are coming: an end to subsidized dental insurance, the cutting of cultural arts programs, the cutting of Mountain Alliance, reduced travel for staff development.
The School Board is asking for an additional $784,000 from the county to make up a projected shortfall of some $1.2 million, based on what the new Republican majority in the NC General Assembly are promising to do. Even with that additional money from the county, the schools would still need to lose nine teacher positions and nine teacher assistants, plus likely reductions in high school athletics, band, and driver’s education. Mr. Hemric warned the commissioners that the Board of Education is “on the brink” of forcing two grade levels into the same classroom for a single teacher to deal with.
Commissioner Jim Deal floated an idea for meeting at least most of the schools’ shortfall. Because the debt service will go down by several hundred thousands of $$ during the next three years, almost $2 million of the $4.5 million Mr. Nelson proposes to set aside from the fund balance could be available now for shoring up the schools. None of the Republican commissioners expressed any enthusiasm for Mr. Deal’s idea.
Meanwhile, and perhaps because they needed to be seen cutting something, the Republican commissioners had a kind of bidding auction on who could zero out the most non-profits and public service providers. Out of a total county budget of $58 million, they grabbed a measly $53,000 by zeroing out contributions to agencies like Hospitality House and Parent to Parent and greatly reducing requested support for the Community Care Clinic, WeCAN, the Western Youth Network, the Hunger Coalition, the Children’s Council, and the Foster Grandparent Program (among others). These are mainly social safety-net programs providing services to people in need that the county might otherwise go without. Penny wise and pound foolish.
The public hearing on the proposed budget on May 17th will be the last gasp for trying to influence the direction this county will take in the next fiscal year and the quality of our lives here.