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6% raise for all in county budget
  • Updated

The proposed fiscal 2022-23 Wilkes County government budget includes a 6% across the board salary increase, the county’s largest ever.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates presented the draft budget to commissioners at their May 3 meeting, saying 42 county employees retired or resigned since Dec. 30 and 22 positions are still unfilled.

“Employees are our top priority for this year’s (2022-23) budget,” said Yates.

A 6% pay hike for county government’s current 506 fulltime positions would cost $1.21 million. Wilkes County budgets typically have 2% or 3% cost of living pay increases for all county employees. The 2021-22 budget had a 3% across the board pay hike, except all sheriff’s office staff received a 6% raise.

“Wilkes County cannot do what we do for our citizens without attracting and retaining high quality, loyal, dedicated and hardworking employees. This is the single most important asset and resource we have,” said Yates.

Several department heads sought higher staff pay, with some saying salaries in their departments lag behind pay in other county governments.

After adding 10 positions in various departments in 2021-22, three are proposed in 2022-23: two new Wilkes Sheriff’s Office deputies and an assistant county finance officer. One new deputy will serve as a second school resource officer at Wilkes Central High School and the other will be an additional patrol sergeant.

The proposed budget keeps the tax rate unchanged at 66 cents per $100 in property valuation for the fourth year in a row. No fire departments requested higher fire district tax rates.

The general fund budget in Yates’ draft budget balances at $92.85 million. The amended general fund budget in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is $94.18 million.

Fee increases

The draft budget includes raising the garbage “tipping” disposal fee from $43 per ton now to $45 per ton instead of making it to $50 per ton as Wilkes Solid Waste Director Anderia Byrd requested. As Byrd requested, it ups the charge per bag from a current range of 35 cents to $1.15 per bag depending in the bag size to a range of 50 cents to $1.50.

Yates said the draft budget authorizes landfill personnel to assess a $10 penalty fee for garbage loads judged not “secured” well enough to prevent portions from escaping. The commissioners discussed this in their April 5 meeting

Several other fee increases requested by department heads are in the draft budget, including:

• raising county inspections department fees. For example, electrical, plumbing and mechanical inspections fees with additions of less than 1,000 square feet are $45 each now and $64 each in the proposed budget. Inspections fees haven’t been raised since 2006;

• raising most environmental health fees charged by the Wilkes Health Department by 25%. These include fees related to septic and other wastewater systems, wells, food and lodging, mobile homes, public swimming pools and tattoo parlors. These fees haven’t been raised since 2006;

• raising costs for most services from Wilkes Emergency Medical Services by an average of 9%, resulting in a projected $226,664 increase in revenue. These were last increased in 2017;

• raising planning department fees, which haven’t been updated since 2004. Examples are increasing fees for secondary road signs from $75 now to $100; junk yard permit renewals from $50 now to 100; and zoning variances from $50 now to $500.

For education, library

Yates proposed 4% more in operational funds for the Wilkes County Schools, Wilkes Community College and the Wilkes County Library than in 2021-22.

The draft budget includes $15.15 million for the Wilkes County Schools, with $14.47 million for current operations and $675,000 for capital outlay. That’s up from $13.92 million for current operations and from $650,000 for capital outlay in 2021-22. The school system requested $16.13 million from the county in 2022-23, including $14.48 million for current operations and $1.65 million for capital outlay.

With lottery and sales tax revenue passed on to the schools, the total appropriation to the Wilkes schools is $19.46 million. Yates said the schools are projected to get $195,223 more in sales tax revenue than in 2022-23.

In a March 22 budget work session, Yates said county government funding of the Wilkes schools increased 18% and enrollment dropped 13% in the last five years.

The proposed budget has $4.30 million for Wilkes Community College, up from $4.16 million the prior year. The college requested $4.36 million. The proposed appropriation includes $3.58 million for current expense, $150,000 for capital outlay, $366,000 for salary supplements and a one-time $202,000 allocation for a welding facility.

Yates proposed $688.697 for the Wilkes County Library and $32,568 for the Traphill Library.

Also in the budget

The draft budget uses American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, including for 11 sheriff’s office cars to replace high mileage cars and to buy two remounted ambulances and an SUV for Wilkes EMS. Other ARP expenditures were approved earlier.

The proposed budget includes:

• $100,000 for four Wilkes DSS;

• one pickup each for the county airport, animal control, county garage, Soil & Water Conservation District and recreation department;

• $590,000 for a D-6 trash compactor to replace the current D6 at the county landfill;

• the solid waste department requested $1.5 million for a new convenience center, but $300,000 was recommended for this;

• $250,952 for the Wilkes Economic Development Corp., which is 4% more than the prior year;

• $34,000 to pay Wilkes Department of Social Services staff $40 for each four-hour shift they spend sitting with a child removed from a home but not yet in foster care. The request for these funds cited a dramatic rise in the number of nights (75 in the past year) DSS social workers had to spend with these children.

The inspections department budget request asked that a county department other than inspections, with two office personnel, answer calls to the main County Office Building number and transferring them. Calls to individual department numbers go straight to the departments.

The proposed budget includes $40.45 million in property tax revenue, based on 2.25% growth expected in real property tax values. Motor vehicle tax revenue is expected to increase 7.5% It includes $23 million in sales tax revenue, a 12.8% increase.

Additional revenue includes using $5.7 million of the county’s unassigned fund balance, leaving about $23.34 million.

New positions requested but not included in the proposed budget are four paramedics; two processing assistants in the health department; a recreation department employee for maintaining the Yadkin River Greenway; EMS education/compliance officer, planning department administrative assistant and Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation District natural resource conservationist.

Primary, school board races culminating
  • Updated

An earlier version of this article omitted some if the schools that will be polling places on May 17. The full list is East Wilkes Middle School gym for Edwards Precinct No. 1, Roaring River Elementary gym for Edwards Precinct No. 2, C.B. Eller Elementary gym for Edwards Precinct No. 3, West Wilkes Middle School gym for Millers Creek Precinct, North Wilkes High School media center for Walnut Grove Precinct and C.C. Wright Elementary gym for Wilkesboro Precinct No. 2.

Election Day for primary and Wilkes Board of Education races is Tuesday, May 17, but one-stop, early voting continues through Saturday, May 14.

One-stop voting is 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday (today), Thursday and Friday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the commissioners meeting room on the first floor of the County Office Building in Wilkesboro.

By 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, 1,374 ballots had been cast in one-stop voting in Wilkes. That surpasses the 1,314 ballots cast in one-stop voting in the primaries and school board race in Wilkes in 2018.

The Wilkes Board of Elections will have 27 polling places open for voting from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. May 17. These are listed inside this issue.

Wilkes Board of Elections Director Kim Caudill said there are two new polling places: Mulberry-Fairplains Fire Station at 2055 Sparta Road, North Wilkesboro, for voters in Mulberry Precinct and Millers Creek Fire Station at 5200 Boone Trail, Millers Creek, for voters in Reddies River Precinct. Both replace schools and provide more space, said Caudill.

She said the McGee Natural Resources Center at 928 Fairplains Road, North Wilkesboro will again serve voters in Rock Creek Precinct No. 2 after being moved there last year.

Caudill said other schools are still polling places and voters should be conscious of traffic there when children are being dropped off or picked up. These include East Wilkes Middle School gym for Edwards Precinct No. 1, Roaring River Elementary gym for Edwards Precinct No. 2, C.B. Eller Elementary gym for Edwards Precinct No. 3, West Wilkes Middle School gym for Millers Creek Precinct, North Wilkes High media center for Walnut Grove Precinct and C.C. Wright Elementary gym for Wilkesboro Precinct No. 2.

The deadline to return absentee ballots to the board is 5 p.m. May 17 and the deadline for the board to receive military/overseas ballots electronically is 7:30 p.m. that day. The deadline for the board to receive absentee ballots by mail is 5 p.m. May 20, but they must be postmarked by Election Day.

Seven different primary ballots are in use in Wilkes. Voters will sign a form with a bar code that will be scanned to make sure they used the correct ballot.

There are two ballots for Republicans 18 and older, one for voters in the part of Wilkes in the 90th House District and the other for voters in the part in the 94th House District. Both have school board and other GOP primary candidates.

Ballots for Democratic voters 18 and older only have school board candidates and 11 Democratic primary candidates for a U.S. Senate seat. There are no other primary choices for Wilkes Democrats.

Seventeen-year-olds who will be 18 before Election Day on Nov. 8 can vote in the primary but not in school board races, so there are three different ballots for 17-year-olds. One is for Republicans in the 90th House District, one for Republicans in the 94thth House District and a third for Democrats.

The six candidates in the non-partisan race for two Wilkes school board seats are Randall (Rudy) Holbrook, Sharron Nichols Huffman, Jammie Y. Jolly, Teresa B. Ray, Tammy Stanley and Susan Marie Rochette. Holbrook and Huffman are incumbents.

With no Democratic or other opponents, GOP primaries will decide races for two Wilkes County commissioner seats, Wilkes sheriff, Wilkes clerk of Superior Court, one of three District Court judgeships on the ballot, state senator for the new 36th District and state representative for the 90th House District

With nine people running for two county commissioner seats, there is a greater chance of results close enough for a runoff. Commissioner candidates are Lori H. Call, J. Rodney Caudill, Tonya Nichols Felts, Stoney S. Greene, Randy D. Queen, Bill Sexton, Gary D. Blevins, Ralph Charlie Broyhill and Barry Bush. None are incumbents.

Incumbent Chris Shew and Eric L. Byrd are squared off in the GOP primary for Wilkes sheriff. Incumbent Regina Combs Billings and Teresa Byers Stone are in the GOP primary for Wilkes clerk of Superior Court. Byrd formerly worked in the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and Stone formerly worked in the Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court’s office.

In the GOP primary for District Court judge seat three, one candidate lives in Wilkes (Laura Byrd Luffman) and one in Ashe County (Jonathan Jordan). There is no incumbent running due to the pending retirement of Chief District Court Judge David Byrd, who holds seat three and is Laura Luffman’s father.

There isn’t an incumbent state senator among four GOP candidates for senator for the 36th District, created in recent redistricting. They are Shirley B. Randleman and Eddie Settle from Wilkes, Vann Tate from Surry County and Lee Zachary from Yadkin County. The fourth county in the 36th is Alexander.

Incumbent Sarah Stevens of Surry and Benjamin Romans of Wilkes are in the Republican primary for 90th House District representative. The 90th includes all of Surry and six eastern Wilkes precincts: Edwards I, II and III; Traphill I and II; and New Castle.

Republican Jeffrey Elmore of Wilkes, representing the rest of Wilkes and all of Alexander in the 94th House District, has no primary opposition. He will face Chuck Hubbard of Wilkesboro, the only Wilkes Democrat who filed for a state or county office this year, in the general election this fall.

Hooper presents 'once in lifetime budget'
  • Updated

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper presented what he called a “once in a lifetime” proposed budget to town commissioners on May 3.

The draft budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which begins July 1, reflects “our revenue growth, the federal and state aid we’ve received and the town’s thrift over the past several years coming together,” said Hooper.

The budget calls for no increase in the tax rate, which would remain at 52 cents per $100 of valuation. For example, he said the owner of property valued at $200,000 would receive a tax bill of $1,040.

The tax rate in Wilkesboro is 48 cents per $100 of valuation, but Hooper noted that Wilkesboro has a “significantly bigger” property tax base that includes the Tyson Foods chicken processing complex.

Hooper’s proposed balanced budget for all funds is $10.6 million, which is about $400,000 greater than the current budget, attributed to “natural growth in the cost of providing municipal services, elective increases in capital purchases (including a new $220,000 garbage collection truck), employee compensation adjustments and changes to service levels.”

The budget includes the third of five 2% increases in the town’s water/sewer rate. Hooper said this would amount to a monthly bill that is “89 cents more for my household, which is a modest increase.”

The town’s wholesale water rate would increase 9 cents per 1,000 gallons to $2.37, which is “still a bargain,” said Hooper, who added that Wilkesboro’s rate is $2.61 to rural water associations.

The proposed budget has $2 per month increase in garbage fees for customers who use cans (residential and small commercial) and a 13% increase in commercial dumpster collection fees.

It has a $5 per item commercial bulky item collection fee and a “tipping fee plus $10 fuel surcharge” for flatbed garbage truck service that was previously free. The new fees are estimated to bring in about $60,000 in additional revenue.

It has various planning and inspection fee increases, including a minimum permit fee going up from $45 now to $65. Other per square foot fees will increase 5 cents per square foot. Hooper said the new rates match those charged by Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.

The budget calls for a 5% cost of living wage increase for all town employees and a $5,000 pay increase for all full-time employees not in the police department. Police received a similar salary bump in February.

Making use of American Rescue Plan (ARP) stimulus funds and a healthy fund balance, the budget also calls for one-time, grant-matching expenditures that includes $700,000 for parks and outdoor economy projects and $497,000 for a $1.5 million aerial fire truck.

“Our revenue is currently strong but next (fiscal) year, with no ARP or FEMA funding, we may not generate the same or have the same fund balance savings,” noted Hooper. “In 2023-24 we may have to make more modest compensation adjustments.”

The proposed budget also calls for spending $600,000 to cancel out town debt, which will save the town $25,000 in the long run, said Hooper.

Hooper added that the budget reflects behavior that he and the board thought would not happen during the pandemic. “People are spending more and tax collections continue to modestly grow.”

The board called for a public hearing on the 2022-23 budget at 5:30 p.m. on June 7.

Other matters

Also on May 3, the board:

• swore in new police officer Katie Cleary;

• called for a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on May 26 related to the allowance of self-storage renting in the general business and central business districts;

• called for a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on June 30 concerning changes to town code and zoning code that would prohibit electronic gaming/gambling businesses.

Land sold for tech job, outdoor economy plans
  • Updated

The last 14 undeveloped acres of the American Drew furniture factory site next to downtown North Wilkesboro will be used in two new initiatives in Wilkes County, one for technology jobs and the other for developing an outdoor economy.

NC Tech Paths Inc. bought 1 ½ of the 14 acres as the site of a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot building with “modern workspace for 200 to 300 technology employees of high-growth companies over the next five years,” said Lee Herring of North Wilkesboro.

Herring is president of the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation, which established and provided over $2 million for NC Tech Paths.

The new NC Tech Paths facility, to be between Independence Avenue and the Central Business District Loop, will be called a “Regional Tech Outpost” (RTO). NC Tech Paths is trying to help local young people earn a living wage in Wilkes with high tech jobs.

The RTO would also house a place for children and adults to experience collaboration, learning and sharing in science, technology, education and math (STEM), called a “makerspace.”

“Our long-term goal is for Wilkes to have a regional STEM Center that serves all of western North Carolina so children and families no longer have to drive to Durham, Greensboro or Charlotte” for that, said Craig DeLucia, president of NC Tech Paths and CEO of the Herring Foundation. “The makerspace will be our first step in providing hands-on STEM experiences to our neighbors.”

The Herring Foundation bought the other 12 ½ acres, including about four acres between Independence Avenue and the CBD Loop to be sold to private developers as sites for apartments and possibly a hotel. “Our community needs more housing, as its absence is the primary barrier for our economic growth,” said Herring.

Remaining acreage the Herring Foundation bought is between Independence Avenue and the Rose Glen Manor assisted living facility on the north and northwest and the Reddies River on the southwest. It includes about five acres in a floodway or floodplain that Herring said will be given to Wilkes County government for establishing a park along the Reddies.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates said the county commissioners agreed by consensus in a closed session at their May 2 meeting to apply for a $950,000 Rural Transformation Grant (RTG) from the state for developing the park. Yates said they also agreed to provide the local match of $250,000 required if the grant is approved.

This five-acre park is in addition to a park on the Reddies with a beach included in plans for developing a “river district” in the Wilkesboros. A local Outdoor Economy Workgroup unveiled the river district concept as part of comprehensive plans for developing an outdoor economy in mid-April.

In their April 25 meeting, the North Wilkesboro commissioners agreed to apply for up to $1 million in RTG funds and provide up to $500,000 as a local match. This money would pay for streetscape work, roads, landscaping, signage, bike racks and similar work on the 14 acres called for in the river district plans.

Applications for the two state grants and related design work were prepared by Destination by Design, the Boone-based company hired by the Outdoor Economy Workgroup to prepare written plans for developing an outdoor economy and encourage active living in Wilkes.

The Outdoor Economy Workgroup includes representatives of the Health Foundation, Wilkes Economic Development Corp., Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority, Wilkes Health Department, Yadkin River Greenway Council and the governments of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.

“Childcare and a greater focus on individual health and wellness and other amenities to support the good-paying jobs generated through NC Tech Paths” will be explored as uses for the property, said Herring.

He said foundation will re-sell remaining acreage west of Independence Avenue to developers as part of the river district plans, with any profits going to NC Tech Paths to fund construction of the RTO.

DeLucia said that based on demand for workspace from NC Tech Paths employer-partners and interest in co-working space among entrepreneurs and teleworkers, NC Tech Paths will still need the Wilkes Journal-Patriot building on Main Street, North Wilkesboro. NC Tech Paths bought the buiding in early spring.

“This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for the Town of North Wilkesboro, and everyone in the Wilkes County area,” said North Wilkesboro Mayor Marc Hauser. “The timing couldn’t be better with the grant money available, NC Tech Paths’ needs for office and housing and the Herring Family Foundation’s generosity. This is a very exciting time with great possibilities.”

Heather Murphy, executive director of the Health Foundation, said goals of NC Tech Paths “beautifully dovetail with what we have put on paper as a concept” for developing an outdoor economy, including a STEM center and multi-family housing as part of the river district. Murphy added that it demonstrates what can be accomplished when people work together.

Herring agreed that the two initiatives align well. “When the Outdoor Economy Workgroup announced their vision to the public, we saw an opportunity to be a catalyst for the overall river district.” They already had an option to purchase the 14 acres, part of what’s known as the Block 46 property, from CBD Main Street LLC.

DeLucia said, “We’re at the outset of a rural revival in Wilkes County. Companies are looking to relocate here because of our beautiful surroundings and quality of life.”

He continued, “Employers are hiring technology talent to live in our community because of our best-in-state education programs and broadband internet. And more of our young people are seeing a path to living here and raising a family here, based on the opportunities that are being created. We’re even being approached by students at Appalachian State University who grew up in other neighboring counties but want to live in Wilkes after graduation.”

Herring said now is the time to invest in Wilkes. “We see the reversal of so many economic trends — from the globalization of manufacturing to the uneven distribution of technology jobs in urban areas.”

He added, “Today, talent is leaving the cities and moving to the places with the best quality of life and seeking out employers that are willing to let their teams work from anywhere. That includes Wilkes County — and it’s underway. Investments that we make today will last a generation or more.”