Halifax County Manager Dia Denton today presented commissioners her budget message for the upcoming fiscal year, commending the board for their insight, direction and support in the crafting of the $51,996,617 financial plan.
“With your insight, direction and support, this document represents a continuation of county services provided in the most cost-effective manner possible,” Denton said of the proposed budget, which does not include a tax increase. “The last two years have presented challenges we could not have ever predicted as we dealt with what became a global pandemic due to COVID-19. This pandemic has forever changed how local governments operate, from managing employees to continuing critical services.”
In praising employees during the pandemic, Denton said, “When everyone else runs away from the fire, county employees run to it. I would like to extend a special thanks to all county staff who have shown great courage and dedication, and have shown the world that we have every-day heroes right here at home.”
In her first budget since being named county manager, Denton said, “ … It is my promise to you and the citizens of this great county that we will continue to provide outstanding services in an efficient manner.”
(As required by law, the budget will be available for public inspection in the clerk to the board’s office and in all five county public libraries for the required ten days. A public hearing will be held on Monday June 6 at 9:30 a.m. with a final adoption scheduled for Monday, June 20 at 9:30 a.m. The budget is also available on the county’s website at this link)
The finance department has been the recipient of annual comprehensive financial reports for the past 22 years, which the county manager said shows “the professional and exceptional level of service we strive to provide to our citizens for a reasonable property tax rate. Our citizens are fortunate to have such dedicated county staff whose commitment is proven on a daily basis.”
Early budget process
Denton said each year the county begins its budget process much earlier than most other local governments, starting the work on the spending and revenue document in September.
That process included analyzing many of the county’s operational, service and capital needs. “This process included a detailed capital planning process, as well as input from the board of county commissioners during its retreat in December which culminated with the commissioners’ direction during our lone April 2022 budget work session.”
Denton extended a thanks to the management team, elected officials, department and agency directors as well as its educational partners “for their continued dedication to a conservative and fiscally responsible approach in this budget process. As always, this budget strives to meet the board of commissioners' mission to provide leadership and support for an effective county government that seeks to enhance the quality of life for all the people of Halifax County."
While faced with the same challenges as most rural and smaller governments in the state in the form of increasing expenses out-pacing revenues, Denton said, “I remain optimistic about the county's overall fiscal and economic outlook.”
The county has a 70.52 percent fund balance — $49,638,178 — which is well above the suggested 8 percent by the North Carolina Local Government Commission.
Denton said a majority of that total is not available for general use, but it does give the county $19,471,776 to address any additional non-recurring needs in the proposed budget.
“ … I compliment staff, with direction from the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, for creating the environment to allow us to have this healthy unassigned fund balance, which also helps us be prepared for emergencies and disasters. Unlike the federal government, we are required to balance our budget and also maintain additional funds to cover any major unexpected events.”
The county continues to use the revenue-based budgeting process, which Denton said “has served us well for more than 20 years. This process has allowed us to manage our budget well and to be able to weather economic challenges that have occurred and will continue to occur in the future. Our conservative projections and fiscally responsible approach have allowed Halifax County to maintain a healthy overall general fund balance.”
Said the county manager: “Halifax County has always had challenges in being able to provide services to our citizens while keeping the property tax rate low. Compared to our area North Carolina counties, we continue to have one of the lowest property tax rates.”
She commended the board and staff in each department on their budget oversight for “their ability to adapt to ever-changing economic conditions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff remains committed to providing efficient and effective services to our citizens at the lowest cost to all taxpayers. After all, many county employees are taxpayers as well, and we also wish to keep our tax burden low.”
Growth in revenue streams
The county has experienced growth in its major revenue streams.
Even with recent increases in gas prices and inflation holding at nearly 8 percent, “I am happy to report that our sales tax revenues have remained strong, and have even increased slightly by 6 percent from last year when we saw significant increases due to statewide stay-at-home orders.”
Based on the economic challenges the county continues to face, “I am impressed that we are able to maintain a good collection rate at an impressive 97.5 percent,” Denton said. “With our healthy fund balance, I am confident we will have the ability to absorb any potential shortfalls in the budget should the economy take a severe downturn.”
The state forecasts slower economic growth in the upcoming fiscal year but has thus far not predicted a recession. “Inflation is expected to decelerate, but consumer spending growth is expected to slow significantly. Despite Halifax County's Tier 1 designation, we maintain a strong budget. I pay tribute to our superb team in making this success happen. In addition to the tax office, I commend the sheriff's office, as well as County Attorney Glynn Rollins and his staff, in going above and beyond in working with taxpayers in establishing payment plans to aid citizens and minimize hardships.
“We are not required to establish payment plans, but we do so in order to support our citizens while respecting the challenges they face in this current uncertain economy. I offer my sincere thanks for the jobs the staff in each of these departments do every day.”
“We continue to have positive movement in our economic development efforts,” Denton said. “I applaud the board of commissioners' forward-thinking and proactive approach in continuing to position the county to create more jobs that pay a living wage in the future. We have experienced slight growth, despite delays due to the pandemic.”
With the North Carolina Department of Transportation's roadwork in the Roanoke Rapids area, the extension of Premier Boulevard to Highway 125 and of American Legion Road to Premier Boulevard, this area is primed for additional growth in the county, Denton said. “Along with support from our economic development commission, Executive Director Cathy Scott and the county commissioners' proactive approach, we are poised to have additional growth in our local economy.”
“Based on our sound approach to our budgets each year the county's financial situation is stable and in line with the requirements dictated by the North Carolina Local Government Commission. I am proud that we have had stable budgets in place for the last 20 years.”
This budget allocates $3,813,762 from fund balance to fund the next fiscal year's approved capital for county departments.
An additional $1,691,653 of fund balance will cover the costs of contributing to the county’s long-range capital improvement plan, additional one-time employee expenses, funding to Halifax Community College to assist with ADA Compliance and funding to various non-profits in support of community needs.
Despite the use of fund balance the audited total fund balance as of June 30, 2021 is 70.52 percent, which remains above the LGC’s 8 percent suggested level.
In addition to a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for all employees, the board approved new salary grades for the sheriff’s office and detention center. “By implementing these changes, Halifax County becomes competitive in recruiting both deputies and detention center staff,” Denton said. “Further, I am pleased that the board of commissioners approved a salary study for all Halifax County positions and I look forward to sharing the results next year and planning for implementation.”
As required by the state of North Carolina, all counties with multiple graded school districts are required to support each district equally as to local current expense funding based on each district's average daily membership.
Counties must also provide funding for school capital needs. This year's budget provides additional capital funding for public schools and community college totaling $675,000.
This additional money was from sales tax revenues collected and distributed to the county based on state statutes.
The current allocation is the result of collections over the past year. Each fiscal year, the Halifax County Board of Commissioners will determine whether and how to appropriate these Article 44 funds, which are limited to economic development, public education or community college purposes.
Halifax County provides both current expense and capital funds to each of the graded school districts. “Thanks to the North Carolina General Assembly, Halifax County now has an additional tool to address school capital needs. The Needs Based Public School Capital Fund provides grants to counties to partner with school systems to address major capital needs.”
And for the first time, the county and school system were able to submit an application for this funding.
The grant was funded in the amount of $31,266,400 to build a new Pre-K through eighth grade school in the western end of the county to merge two aging schools. The county will provide an additional 5 percent match for this project.
All three graded school systems will receive funding based on the supplemental school property tax rate within their respective districts. The following tax rates are anticipated for each of the school systems.
Because the county distributes local sales and use taxes by the ad valorem method, all three districts will be receiving a portion of sales tax revenues.
Halifax County has many capital needs, Denton said.
The proposed budget will continue to address pressing capital needs by funding, among other things, debt service payments for Enfield-inborden School, Manning Elementary School and the social services building.
This budget continues to provide county services at efficient and effective levels. This budget does not include a property tax increase.
This budget is based on an estimated property tax base of $3,614,473,684 and a tax collection rate of 97.5 percent.
The tax rate of 76 cents per $100 value will be adequate to support the FY 2022-2023 budget.
The county provides local funding to each graded school district based on ADM allotments that are provided by North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and the amount allocated will increase from $749.55 per pupil to $780.60 per pupil.
To maintain a healthy workforce, this budget continues to provide a competitive benefits package, which includes 100 percent paid premiums for health coverage for each full-time employee who participates in the county’s wellness program.
With increasing health costs, this budget had to absorb a 10 percent premium increase to maintain employee health coverage.
This budget maintains the county’s longevity pay program, which Denton said is a vital employee retention tool to reward long-term full-time employees.
This budget provides a 3 percent COLA for full-time employees, as well as a bonus for full-time and regular part-time employees.
This budget funds the pay-for-performance evaluation plan, which Denton said is a vital employee retention tool.
Employees will receive a floating holiday this fiscal year.
This budget continues our hiring freeze, previous staff reductions and travel restrictions, which will remain in effect throughout this budget year.
This budget includes funds to support both economic development and contingency operations.
This budget continues to require employees to use county vehicles, when available, for travel. The policy amounts to a savings of over 60 percent in travel costs versus paying mileage for use of personal vehicles.
This budget funds needed capital outlay for county departments.
This budget provides funding to non-profit community partners in the amount of $305,503.
“Historically, we have had difficult budget situations in Halifax County,” Denton said. “The past few years of this budget planning process have been especially challenging in playing catch-up on addressing needs that have been delayed based on our reduced revenues during the recession years.
“However, even today, there are unknowns in the areas of lottery revenues, sales tax distributions, allowable 911 fund expenses, ABC revenues and Medicaid transformation, which has greatly impacted reimbursements for both EMS and public health.
During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, Halifax County was fortunate to receive $1,525,371 in COVID- 19 relief funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Additionally, Halifax County will receive a total of $9,713,856 provided by American Rescue Plan/Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery funds.
The county has received half of the total amount at $4,856,928, and the remaining half is expected on or about June 22. “With this funding, $7,213,856 is planned to supplant personnel expenses, while $2,500,000 is set aside to address broadband accessibility, a top priority of this board of commissioners,” Denton said.
This summer, staff will present a plan by which the board may receive public input on how citizens wish to see the funds used.
The county manager said, “This proposed budget shows the county's commitment to providing excellent services to its citizens. However, it only addresses items over which we, the county, have full control. There will always be the potential for changes from both the federal and state governments as we adjust to the new normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff and I will continue to work diligently with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, the North Carolina City and County Management Association and the National Association of Counties in communicating our concerns to both our state and federal legislators to ensure they are fully educated and aware of the potential implications of their decisions at the local level in Halifax County.”
Denton said, “I am thankful that this board of county commissioners continues to recognize the county’s most important asset — our employees. It was never more evident how valuable our employees were until we had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic shows the true commitment our employees have to protecting our citizens, especially those most vulnerable to the ill effects of the virus. I am honored by the commitment we have from our employees and the services we proudly provide.”
Denton said she is proud to work with staff she described as dedicated and who “amaze me with their ability to do more with less while working hard to serve our citizens. I would especially like to thank the strong support that I receive from our core budget team: Assistant County Manager Christina Wells, Finance Director Mary Duncan, and Assistant Finance Director Teresa Mozingo. These team members are key pieces of the massive budget puzzle.”
She thanked all employees for their hard work and dedication. “Knowing our challenges, our employees are mindful of budget constraints and continue to look for ways to improve service delivery. This strong sense of loyalty is proven daily in my interactions with staff. It will always be my desire to provide strong, stable leadership and to take a fiscally conservative approach to maintaining and improving the quality of life for our citizens.
“Our goals in Halifax County are to provide a better place to live, work, play and to improve life for all of our residents. Our informal motto over the last several years has been ‘Working Together Works,’ and I am honored to be part of a team that practices and lives out the meaning of these words every day.”