County Manager Rick Hester’s proposed spending plan for 2014-15 looks much like the current-year budget – but with 15-cent increases in water rates and 2.2-percent pay raises for county employees.
Hester has given commissioners a budget that would spend about $188 million in the year ahead, up 3 percent from $182 million in the current year. Commissioners will listen to public comment, consider changes and eventually adopt a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Hester proposes 15-cent increases in all water rates.
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For rural customers who buy water directly from the county, the usage rate would increase from $3.10 per 1,000 gallons to $3.25. Hester said the average customer uses about 5,000 gallons a month, so the increase would add 75 cents to the average bill.
For towns that buy water in bulk from the county, the rate would climb from $2 per 1,000 gallons to $2.15. Farmers who use county water for irrigation would pay $4.25 per 1,000 gallons, up from $4.10.
Hester said the increased revenue would help fund a capital-improvement program commissioners approved last year to make sure Johnston’s water infrastructure is in repair.
Superintendent Ed Croom is seeking $57.6 million next year for school operations and capital projects. This year, the schools received $52.4 million, and Hester is recommending $52.5 million for next year. Commissioners, who have the final say, have often given the schools more than Hester has recommended.
Johnston Community College received about $4.2 million this year, and the proposed budget would give the college $4.3 million next year.
Hester has recommended a 2.2-percent pay increase for the county’s 1,100 employees. That would cost the county an extra $1 million in the year ahead.
Hester said 2 percent is typical this year for county government employees in North Carolina. “I just felt like that was something we could afford, the county could afford, and it would be a pretty good pay increase,” he said.
This year, county employees received a 2-percent increase, and the year before, they got 1.2 percent more. For the three years before that, Hester said, county employees had no pay increase.
The county uses about 20 percent of its revenue each year to retire debt, mostly for new and renovated schools. In the next year, the total debt payment will increase by about $700,000 to $37.6 million. Last year, it grew by roughly $3 million.
“It’s just the nature of how the debt is structured,” Hester said.
The total debt payment can change year to year for any number of reasons. It can go down, for example, if the county refinances its borrowing at a lower rate or if total debt outstanding falls. It can go up if the county borrows more money.
“It starts leveling out to a certain degree, and that’s what we try to do – is try to eliminate as many of the spikes as possible,” Hester said.
Under the proposed budget, human services would get a $1 million bump in the year ahead, with the money coming from state and federal sources. Human services includes the health, mental health and social services departments. The money will go to three programs that help people fix up their homes to lower heating and cooling bills.
On the revenue side, Hester expects the county to collect more in property taxes, from $97.7 million this year to $100.3 million next year. Sales-tax collections should also increase, from roughly $26.4 million this year to $28 million next year. The state’s new Tag & Tax Together program, which ties registration renewal with paying the vehicle property tax, should increase the county’s vehicle tax collection. Hester estimates that will increase from $10.1 million this year to $11.3 million next year.