LAURINBURG — In its first retreat on Wednesday to begin sorting out a 2016-2017 budget, the Scotland County Board of Commissioners approved a policy defining what percentage of expenditures it can keep in fund balance.
The county’s finances have come a long way from four years ago, when the county’s fund balance fell below the eight percent minimum mandated by the state. The current fund balance is around 20 percent.
On Wednesday, the commissioners approved a policy defining 15 percent as its minimum fund balance and 24 percent as a maximum.
“The 15 percent is what I would recommend as the minimum, because that keeps enough cushion so that we don’t have to sit down and figure out exactly when we should pay what and how long we need to sit on an invoice,” said County Manager Kevin Patterson.
Should the county’s reserves fall below 15 percent, the policy dictates that county staff formulate a plan to rectify the situation.
Commissioner Guy McCook pointed out that, at present, the general fund balance is the only reserve the county can tap if it needs access to funds to land a major industry.
“I would argue that the 15 percent is in fact the absolute minimum, and 20, 21, or 22 percent is ideal for us as a community, because of the capital needs that we could have,” he said. “When that industry shows up at our door wanting to invest $100 million in our community, it’s going to mean us writing a check. I think we need to be prepared to do that when and if that happens.”
In other business, the commissioners reacted to their joint meeting earlier this week with the Scotland County Board of Education. That meeting was the county’s first look at the school system’s proposed consolidation, which would involve building a new elementary school and expanding two existing schools.
“They have looked at the diminishing number of students they’ve had and looked at the conditions of their schools and they have made some tough decisions,” said commissioner Whit Gibson. “We have to recognize that they are doing what we as a body suggested that they had not done and needed to do.”
School staff pitched the plan as one that will involve no additional cost to the county between utility and staffing cost savings and $1.8 million annually in sales tax and lottery funds that will be available in 2020 once current debts are paid.
But the commissioners are not taking that claim at face value.
“If they should come back for a couple million, and they will come back, the question is what are we going to do,” said commissioner John Alford. “Are we going to ask them to curtail the building and just build the school a little smaller?”
The schools’ plan represented current expense savings as roughly sufficient to offset annual payments on the new construction. But the commissioners see current expense as an area where the county might share in the savings.
“The total amount of dollars we give them is what I’m looking to reduce,” said Gibson. “We don’t have any choice but to earmark that $1.8 million for anything but current debt or future construction of capital projects. Our only way to reduce the total amount of dollars paid is to reduce the current expense.”
Also on Wednesday, the county received a recommendation from Pieter Scheer of Smith and Gardner Engineers concerning the future of its solid waste enterprise. Last year, the county introduced a solid waste availability fee, which has returned the enterprise to a solvent state that could allow it to continue operating indefinitely.
“The recent addition of the availability fees to the tipping fees and the other revenues that you’re already receiving should allow the county to continue your present level of service and save sufficient funds for those future financial obligations, closure and post-closure,” said Scheer.
Other options presented include closing the landfill in the 2022-2023 fiscal year and introducing rural curbside collection services to eliminate the need for the county’s convenience sites.
Also on Wednesday, the commissioners:
— Directed Patterson to research the costs involved with leasing vehicles for use by the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office.
— Discussed repairs to the county’s water towers scheduled for the next two years and the possibility of hosting cellular communications internet to expand internet options on the north end of the county.
— Sent the county’s draft employee substance abuse policy back to the policy committee for further review.
— Selected Stogner Architecture of Rockingham of the three firms to respond to the county’s RFQ concerning plans to redesign the Edwin Morgan Center building.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.