A closer look at Chatham’s proposed county budget

Posted 5/12/21

Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne’s recommended $149.9 million 2021-22 budget for county operations represents a 10.4% increase in expenditures from the current budget — funded in part by …

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A closer look at Chatham’s proposed county budget

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Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne’s recommended $149.9 million 2021-22 budget for county operations represents a 10.4% increase in expenditures from the current budget — funded in part by expected additional tax revenue, including an increase in property taxes, permitting, excise and sales tax collections.

The county property tax rate set in the proposed budget is 66.5 cents per $100 in assessed property value, a half-cent below the current tax rate but higher than the revenue-neutral rate of 62.29 cents per $100, calculated after the revaluation. That new rate, if approved — and combined with the recent county-wide property revaluation — would raise property taxes for residents, generating an estimated 12% increase in property tax revenue for fiscal 2021-22.

In the current budget cycle, the various additional increases in tax revenue was an unexpected perk.

“Our conservative approach to sales tax when we called an audible at this time last year with the pandemic really came to bear,” Assistant County Manager Bryan Thompson said during last week’s budget presentation to county commissioners. “Our performance is stronger than what we could have anticipated.”

The proposed budget also includes an additional $2.4 million to support the opening of Seaforth High school, funding for 31 new county positions and a 3% pay raise for all county employees.

LaMontagne said the county was in a good position to recover from challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and last October’s cyber attack, but needed to look ahead to prepare county government for the additional challenges that come with handling population and development growth.

“For several years, we have discussed the need of being properly prepared for growth. As a county, we are now at the point that the rapid growth and development we have long expected is happening,” LaMontagne said in a May 4 news release about the proposed budget. “Throughout this budget, you will see that we are focused on ensuring that the development that is occurring is well monitored and aligns with the long-term vision that Plan Chatham has laid out for Chatham County.”

The budget can be viewed online at https://bit.ly/3hhxVDv or at any of the three Chatham County public library branches.

No action was taken on the budget; last week’s meeting kicked off a budget process that will span through the end of June. The board will host a public hearing on the budget Monday at the Agriculture and Conference Center in Pittsboro, and residents also can comment by registering for the GoToWebinar and signing up to speak online through the public input form. Comments also should be submitted in writing to lindsay.ray@chathamcountync.gov.

Board work sessions will follow on May 20, 21 and 25. The budget is set to be finalized June 21 to meet the state-required June 30 budget adoption date; the county’s fiscal year begins July 1.

Here are some highlights from the proposed budget:

Cyber security

The budget includes $81,531 to implement off-site backup storage data and a disaster recovery plan for the county network.

“This will allow MIS to have safe and consistent backups to allow for quicker restoration of the county network in the event another network disruption happens in the future,” the budget message says.

This budget change follows the Oct. 28 ransomware attack — where Russian threat actors demanded Bitcoin worth about $708,000 — that shut down most of the county’s internal network. The attack resulted in the eventual posting of personal information of some local residents and former and current county employees, including data such as Social Security and bank account numbers.

LaMontagne previously told the News + Record the county’s recovery from the attack was nearly complete, but it caused months of challenges for county MIS and email and phone communication and website — although no loss of services to county residents.

County staff

The 31 budgeted new positions include multiple positions in building inspections, social services, MIS, emergency communications and the Sheriff’s Department. There are also positions recommended in central permitting, register of deeds, watershed protection, facilities, social services, parks and recreation, telecommunications and pre-trial release.

“We can no longer delay responding to the increased demand in service that accompanies growth,” LaMontagne said.

The budget also recommends a 3% salary increase for county employees, as well as implementing the recently completely pay study.

The 6% overall increase in salary expenditures reflects the recommended salary increase, pay study implementation, as well as the full-year cost of the 31 positions to be added mid-year in FY 2021.

“While many expenses are necessary to continue movement toward our goals, competitive salaries are essential to maintaining and attracting talented, professional staff,” LaMontagne said. “This is a vital investment to handle the coming growth.”

The budget also proposes multiple expansions for the Public Safety CIT, which includes departments that respond to emergencies, crimes and other safety hazards. The budget recommends the hiring of 11 detention officers to “address improvements needed in cell block monitoring” and return officers currently assigned to the county’s detention center to its Law Enforcement Division — a $655,688 cost.

If approved, the budget will also add a Commision on Accrediation for Law Enforcement ($39,697) and various staff positions to respond to emergency communications increased demands.

Sustainability

A new Sustainability Department would be created if the budget is approved. It would focus on energy efficiency, natural resources and climate change through projects like electric-vehicle charging stations and solar panels for county buildings.

The budget also includes $28,000 for a revised Farmland Preservation and Open Space Plan, to be conducted by Cooperative Extension and Soil and Water Conservation District. The walking trail at Southwest District Park will be extended to provide an additional half-mile of trail, for $41,500.

Chatham County Schools

The proposed budget fully funds Chatham County Schools’ request for an additional $2.4 million to support the opening of Seaforth High School next fall, which will be Chatham’s fourth public high school and the first built since 1972. The budget includes $5.2 million to cover borrowing payments for the new high school and an additional $180,000 for teacher supplements.

The recommended budget “maintains the county’s focus on school priorities and preparations for growth,” the county’s news release said.

As directed by the board of commissioners at an April meeting, expected revenue from the county’s new Article 46 sales tax — estimated at around $600,000 at that meeting — is allocated to the school budget and to affordable housing, parks and recreation and agricultural preservation.

Other items

• COVID-19 recovery: $75,000 for the Chatham Economic Development Corporation to provide financial assistance to small businesses hurt by the pandemic.

• Fee increases: The budget sets a $400 minimum fee for inspecting single-family homes and increases the basic permit fee and re-inspection fee each by $10, to make the fee $60. It also includes an increase in fees for development-related testing such as fire flow testing (+$110), meter set (+$50), standard ¾” tap (+$400), hydrostatic pressure test (+$10) and bacteriological sampling on new construction (+$125).

• Fire district taxes: Of the 11 fire departments in Chatham funded through separate property taxes collected by the county, Bennett, Pittsboro and Silk Hope fire departments have asked for an increase in the tax charged to businesses and residents in those respective districts.

The Bennett department proposed a 2-cent increase, bringing its tax rate to 11 cents, or 4 cents below the maximum 15 cents allowed by General Statute. This increase would be used to add one part-time employee to assist with the department’s upcoming ISO rating inspection and to increase its level of service provided to the citizens of their district, the budget message said.

The Pittsboro department proposed a 0.4-cent increase for the Circle City fire district — bringing its tax rate to 12.65 cents — to be used to fund renovation of all three fire stations, add three full-time shift personnel, one administrative assistant and to cover increased audit and attorney fees.

The Silk Hope department also proposed a 0.4-cent increase, bringing its tax rate to 8.25 cents. This increase would be used for salary increases and the addition of one part-time employee.

The county’s proposed budget focuses on growth and COVID-19 recovery, following a more caution approach to the budget last year, when many questions about the pandemic remained.

“Last year we faced many uncertainties during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we projected our revenue cautiously while making careful choices regarding expenditures,” LaMontagne said. “This year we believe that our careful planning positioned the county well to recover from the economic downturn. … April marked Chatham County’s 250th anniversary. We are looking back with gratitude, and we are looking ahead with anticipation and confidence.”

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

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