County sets budget, eyes DSS hurdles

    Murphy – Cherokee County officials breathed a sigh of relief Thursday, when the 2018-19 fiscal year budget was finalized after another grueling process.

    The total for the general fund budget is $38,194,705, bringing it closely in line with the final number for the recently completed fiscal year. The property tax, or millage, rate remained the same at 52 cents per $100 of value.
    Commissioner Roy Dickey thanked County Manager Randy Wiggins and Finance Officer Candy Anderson for their hard work on the budget at the last of three budget meetings in a final furious week of work on the project. Commissioner C.B. McKinnon added the school board, Superintendent Jeana Conley and all county department heads to that thank you list.
    “The government gets their money through the people, and we have to be good stewards of it,” McKinnon said.
    Wiggins pointed out to the board that Cherokee County had a below-average tax rate, but an above-average fund balance, when compared with other counties of similar size.
    Per the priorities set by Chairman Dan Eichenbaum and the rest of the commission, public safety ($10,937,920) and education ($7,705,012 including Tri-County Community College) were the largest expenditures.
    The third-highest amount was $8,519,094 on health and human services, including the health department and Department of Social Services. The latter presents the next challenge for commissioners, as the ongoing DSS controversy could prove costly in multiple ways.
    Officials from the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services have requested more than $400,000 in county funds to continue aligning the practices of Cherokee County DSS with state standards in the wake of the department’s takeover earlier this year.
    At their penultimate budget meeting, the county voted not to budget any of those funds and to make Michael Becketts, assistant secretary for DHHS, come and explain the need for the funds himself. Becketts could make that visit as soon as the Monday, July 16, commission meeting after returning from an overseas trip.
    The other financial pitfall potentially facing the county in the coming year is the potential settlement of the class-action lawsuit filed against the county and DSS over the illegal custody visitation agreements that started the investigation and subsequent takeover.
    “There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to DSS,” McKinnon said during budget deliberations. “I have a feeling you’re going to end up getting into fund balance and then some when it’s all over.”
    The county also is hoping to receive more participation from Clay and Graham counties in funding for Tri-County Community College. A fund request for $117,000 for additional maintenance and security workers at the college was denied by the county in hopes of splitting that bill three ways, but there have been no responses from emails sent by Wiggins to the other two county managers.