Johnston County

County budget starts at $220 million, but falls millions short of school request

County manager Rick Hester proposed a $220 million budget for Johnston County next year.
County manager Rick Hester proposed a $220 million budget for Johnston County next year.

Johnston County’s starting point for next year’s budget adds $9 million in spending over last year, but comes up about $14 million short of fully funding the request from the school board.

County manager Rick Hester is recommending a $220 million budget to the board of commissioners, which will spend the next month finalizing taxpayer spending for next year. No tax increase is planned for next year, making it a decade and a half since Johnston last balanced a budget with a tax hike, instead leaning on steady residential growth to pay for greater strains on programs and services.

“I never plan to recommend a tax increase,” Hester said. “That’s not something I’ll ever recommend in a budget.”

Hester noted that his $220 million proposed budget is about a 4 percent increase over last year. Without hiking up taxes, Johnston’s incoming residents are fueling that growth, Hester said, making the county one of the faster-growing counties in the Southeast. In the next two years, Johnston’s population is projected to eclipse 200,000.

Earlier this month, the board of education sent a $72 million budget request to the county, topping last year’s funding by $16 million. Hester said he tries to grow school funding by 2.5 to 3 percent each year and is recommending a 3.1 percent increase in this budget to $58.6 million in school spending and another $1 million in capital projects. Johnston Community College would receive $4.3 million for operations and a little more than a half million dollars for capital costs.

The commissioners, though, make the final decision on school spending and last year added $1.5 million to the schools themselves before the budget was approved, funding most of the county’s 1 percent increase in local teacher pay.

“We have a great working relationship with the board of education and superintendent Ross Renfrow,” Hester said. “It will be primarily our elected officials who discuss funding from here. The good news is there’s plenty of time. I have great respect for the board of education and Dr. Renfrow, and they have to put together a budget they feel meets their needs.”

Hester noted that the county will make its first debt payment next year on $30 million worth of critical capital projects on some of Johnston’s older schools.

In response to a wastewater study that showed Johnston’s water and sewer funds diving into the red in the next few years, Hester said a 6 percent increase is built into this budget. The study had recommended that much of an increase, which will add a little more than $50 to the average county resident’s annual bill.

“It’s important that the water and sewer systems pay for themselves and continue to run like a business,” Hester said.

One of the larger changes in this year’s budget is the absorption of the Selma EMS department into the county system. North Carolina grants counties the authority to run emergency services departments or contract them out. A decade ago, Hester said, most first responders were contracted through nonprofits, but in recent years the county has taken on many of those departments.

Currently three contractors are left – Selma, Four Oaks and 50-210 EMS – but as of July 1, Selma will be added to Johnston County’s roster. Hester said the county will absorb 25 new employees.

The county has no plans as of now to take over Four Oaks or 50-210, Hester said.

Beyond those 25 new employees, Hester’s budget adds 12 others, including four in the sheriff’s office, two in emergency services, one environmental health inspector and one plumber. There are also four additions to the public utilities department.

A public hearing on next year’s budget will be at 10 a.m. June 5. Three work sessions will also be held, at 6 p.m. June 12 and June 19 and 8:30 a.m. June 26, when the budget is expected to be approved.

Drew Jackson: 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson