Wilkes County Manager John Yates proposed a fiscal 2021-22 county budget with 10 new full-time positions and over $3 million in capital expenditures at the May 4 commissioners’ meeting.
Yates identified other capital projects to be funded with $5.9 million of $13.6 million the county is earmarked to get from the federal American Rescue Plan. He said they impact but aren’t in the fiscal 2021-22 budget.
The draft budget has $700,686 for a 3% across the board pay increase for full-time county employees. Self-insured Blue Cross Blue Shield employee health insurance premiums are going up by 4%, costing the county $208,800 in fiscal 2021-22.
The draft plan includes a general fund budget of $86.6 million, slightly less than the amended 2020-21 general fund budget. Before being amended to reflect revenue exceeding expectations (mostly $5.2 million more in sale tax proceeds than projected), the 2020-21 general fund budget was about $77 million due to cuts in anticipation of pandemic-related revenue losses. In 2019-20, the county had an $85 million general fund budget.
The proposed budget leaves the county property tax rate unchanged at 66 cents per $100 of property valuation. It projects $39.3 million in property tax revenue due to an expected 2.28% increase in the property tax base.
A 2-cent increase in the Millers Creek Fire Department fire district tax rate is included, as requested by the fire department.
The draft budget projects $20.4 million in retail sales tax revenue, a 10% increase over fiscal 2020-21.
It is balanced by using $4.71 million of the county’s unassigned fund balance, leaving $24.83 million.
Public hearings on the proposed budget and the Millers Creek Fire District tax rate increase are scheduled June 1.
Copies of the proposed budget are available at Yates’ office in the County Office Building in Wilkesboro. The first work session on the budget, open to the public, was set for 6 p.m. May 11.
The proposed budget includes $102,800 and about $30,000 in benefits for the new positions of assistant county attorney and paralegal.
Tony Triplett, longtime county attorney, is up for reappointment annually like the county manager and county clerk.
Unchanged from the prior year, the draft budget has an additional $250,000 for legal expenses that includes $220,000 for county attorney professional services paid to the North Wilkesboro law where Triplett is a partner. The remaining $30,000 is for “other attorney professional services.
Yates said in an interview that it’s hard to find attorneys with experience in county government legal matters and the assistant county attorney would learn while working with Triplett, plus do other county legal work. Yates said the paralegal’s responsibilities would include administrative work for the assistant county attorney, county manager and county clerk.
Three of the new county positions are in the Wilkes County Health Department and three are at the county landfill.
The new health department positions are public health nurse, for leading the COVID-19 team with vaccination and other COVID-related work and clinic work; processing assistant, for billing, fee collections, handling insurance claims and similar work; and environmental health specialist, for septic system and related work. Yates said applications for septic system permits increased 30% recently.
The landfill positions include two weighmasters for manning outbound scales being installed and a solid waste enforcement officer in response to a substantial increase in solid waste violations and complaints, plus helping with public education.
A 911 dispatcher and garage maintenance technician are also proposed. Yates said the additional dispatcher is needed due to an increase in call volume and demand on emergency services in the last three years.
He said the garage position is needed due to county government’s increased number of vehicles and more work with radios, lights and equipment installation. The person would be on call to operate the county wrecker and rollback, plus work at the garage;
In the animal control department, the proposed budget has $18,000 for two part-time employees that were cut in the prior year’s budget.
Major capital expenditures in the proposed budget include:
• a little over $2 million on Wilkes County Airport improvements, including $1.5 million for an above ground water storage tank for improved fire protection and $509,540 for the pad (site grading) for t-hangar for aircraft storage;
• about $875,000 on capital needs at the Wilkes County Landfill, including $335,000 for scales to weigh vehicle after their solid waste loads are dumped, $179,000 for a dump truck and $361,050 for rebuilding a Cat 836H landfill compactor;
•about $111,000 on capital needs in the recreation department, including $70,000 for a building with restroom, showers and picnic tables on the eastern end of Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge; $9,800 for a new roof on an existing building at River’s Edge; $28,000 for a tractor with attachments; and $4,000 for a trailer;
•$48,000 for Wilkes Department of Social Services building improvements.
The proposed 2021-22 budget appropriates $18.3 million for the Wilkes County Schools, including $13.5 million for current expense and $650,000 for capital outlay. In fiscal 2020-21, $12.36 million was budgeted for current expense a$559,000 for capital outlay.
Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd requested $14.56 million for current expense and $650,000 for capital outlay in 2021-22.
Byrd said that although the current expense request was about $2 million more than funding in 2021-22, it was only a $650,000 increase over current expense funding in 2019-20 due to last year’s cuts. He asked that the county view this $650,000 as a continuation of $650,000 annual middle school debt payments, which ended when this was paid off in December.
The Wilkes County Schools are expected to receive $23.73 million from the ARP in 2021-22. This includes $4.7 million that must be spent on pandemic-related “learning loss.”
The proposed budget includes $4.16 million for Wilkes Community College, which includes $3.44 million for current expense ($583,234 more than the prior year), $150,000 for capital outlay, $366,000 for salary supplements and $202,000 as the county’s final and fifth annual match for ConnectNC bond funds. County funds for WCC were cut by 14% in 2020-21.
Included for the Appalachian Regional Library, which all comes back to Wilkes, is $693,525. This is $92,709 more than the prior year, when library funding was cut by 14%. It includes $662,209 for the Wilkes County Library in downtown North Wilkesboro and $31,316 for the Traphill Library.
Library officials requested $760,520, including $728,302 for the Wilkes Library and $32,218 for the Traphill Library.
The Wilkes Board of Elections requested pay hikes exceeding a 3% cost of living raise for the three fulltime employees in the elections department. Wilkes Board of Elections Chairman Larry Taylor said the three are classified at levels that don’t meet average regional entry level pay for their positions. The draft budget only includes the 3% pay raise.
The draft budget also includes:
• $678,349 divided among about 40 nonprofit organization. This is what they got in 2020-21, when funding was cut by 14%. Several of them received parts of $200,000 in federal COVID-19 aid in 2020-21;
• $40,000 for economic investment grants for small businesses under a new plan for promoting economic development. The Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro governing bodies have already approved the new plan, but not the county commissioners;
• $35,000 for replacing a high-mileage truck in animal control;
• $36,600 for the county commissioner travel pay, up from $31,600;
• $20,000 for equipment in the county manager’s office, up from $5,000;
• $65,000 for auxiliary deputy pay, up from $27,000.
Plans for ARP funds
About $13.26 million earmarked for Wilkes County government in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) isn’t reflected in the county’s proposed fiscal 2021-22 budget, but Yates cited plans for about $5.9 million of it in his budget message at the May 4 commissioners’ meeting.
Half of the $13.26 million is supposed to arrive in the first half of the fiscal year and the rest in the second half. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Yates said no ARP funds have arrived, “nor have we received final guidance from the federal government” on how they can be spent. All of the $13.6 million must be spent by the end of 2024.
The Town of North Wilkesboro is expected to receive $1.23 million from the ARP; Town of Wilkesboro, $1.01 million; and Town of Ronda, $120,000.
Yates said requests for 14 vehicles for the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office, one new ambulance and an ambulance remount for Wilkes Emergency Medical Services and other new vehicles aren’t funded in the proposed budget in anticipation of using $902,000 in ARP funds for this.
Yates also recommended using about $5 million from the ARP on four construction projects: $2.5 million for a Wilkes Emergency Medical Services main base on county-owned land on Call Street in Wilkesboro; $15 million as the local match for a $1.5 million Golden LEAF grant for a building on N.C. 268 East in North Wilkesboro for businesses to lease; $500,000 as the local match for a T-hangar with rental space for aircraft at the Wilkes County Airport; and $500,000 for a “burn building” for training at the firefighter training grounds off Germantown Road in Moravian Falls.
In fiscal 2020-21, Wilkes County government received $2.69 million in federal pandemic relief funds. This included $2.1 million for the Wilkes County Health Department.
The $1.9 trillion ARP was signed into federal law in March.
The Wilkes County commissioners created a committee to study and make recommendations on library services instead of initiating a withdrawal from the Appalachian Regional Library System during their May 4 meeting.
Applications are being accepted from people interested in serving on the committee. Forms for applying are at https://wilkescounty.formstack.com/forms/board_application.
Commission Chairman Eddie Settle said the commissioners will vote on the library research committee’s members at their May 18 meeting.
The May 4 meeting was the board’s first in its normal room in the County Office Building and also the largest in attendance since the pandemic began. They’ve been meeting at the County Ag Center to allow more distancing.
Most of the 30 or so people in the audience were there due to “Notice to withdraw from the Appalachian Regional Library System” being an action item on the meeting agenda. Most appeared to support not leaving.
Settle had this item placed on the agenda. He later said in an interview that he would seek a motion tabling it after receiving calls from people opposed to leaving the ARL.
A woman in the audience asked what prompted the committee’s creation. Settle said it was due to people asking why Wilkes was leaving the ARL, but added that Wilkes wasn’t leaving the regional organization.
Another woman said she was glad to hear Wilkes was staying in the ARL, but added that her initial impression was otherwise. She said she agreed with having more branch libraries because Wilke is a large county.
Settle said the committee might recommend more public libraries in Wilkes, or decide not due to more people being online. Restoring bookmobile service was mentioned.
Sharon Underwood, one of four representing Wilkes on the ARL board, said she didn’t know until now that leaving the regional system was an issue. She said library services in Wilkes are much stronger due to being in a regional system.
“Why are we here, Eddie?” Underwood asked.
Settle said it was because Surry County government budgeted $525,000 for the Northwestern Regional Library System and Wilkes budgeted $693,525 for the ARL this year, but Surry has five libraries and Wilkes has two. All of this money comes back to the respective counties.
Wilkes has the Traphill Library, open two days a week, and the main library in downtown North Wilkesboro.
Surry is in the Northwestern system with Alleghany, Yadkin and Stokes counties and has libraries in Elkin, Mount Airy, Dobson, Pilot Mountain and Lowgap.
Settle acknowledged that the Northwestern system gets more municipal funding from Surry than the Appalachian system gets from Wilkes, including about $80,000 this year from Elkin. The Northwestern system also received $103,651 from Mount Airy, $35,000 from Pilot Mountain and $24,500 from Dobson for a total of $243,151 in municipal funding.
The Appalachian system’s only municipal funding from Wilkes is $5,000 per year from North Wilkesboro.
Settle said the committee will be asked to look into operations of the two libraries in Wilkes, the ARL and other regional library systems and libraries across the state and make recommendations on changes.
It will be chaired by Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson, who is on the Wilkes Library Advisory Board. Discussion indicated there will be 10-12 members.
Johnson made a motion to form a committee comprised of educators, librarians, community members, library advisory board members and library users to study options for library services in Wilkes. He said seven people so far agreed to join it, including two Wilkes Library Advisory Board members, two school librarians and current or retired public school professionals.
Settle suggested that Jane Blackburn, ARL director of libraries, be on the committee. He also said the committee would be asked to report back by March 1.
Blackburn said a year is ample time to investigate leaving the ARL and becoming a county department or joining the Northwestern Regional Library System. She said this included learning if Northwestern would add Wilkes.
Blackburn said another issue is the amount of money Wilkes County government is willing to spend to have more branch libraries.
She said the ARL is doing a great job, drawing applause from the audience.
Blackburn added, “But I’m not afraid of looking at the other ways to do it because I want Wilkes County to have the best library system it can have. If it’s with us, good; if not, then God bless you and good luck with whatever you need to do. You need to get all the ducks in a row.”
Settle asked if it was possible for a county library advisory board to name the county librarian. Blackburn said it isn’t possible under state law if the county is in a regional system.
She said statutes give the governing power to the regional board, which consists of a certain number of the members of each county advisory board. It’s four from each county advisory board with Appalachian, chosen by the commissioners.
Blackburn said the regional board gives her authority to hire each county librarian. She said the last two Wilkes librarians hired by the regional board were recommended by Blackburn and by a search committee consisting of Blackburn, another staff person, three Wilkes library advisory board members and another Wilkes resident.
County Attorney Tony Triplett noted that the interlocal agreement establishing the ARL expires in July 2022, so having the committee come back with its findings in a year is good timing.
The Wilkesboro Police Department is investigating the death of a man whose body was found in a large dumpster behind his residence Thursday, said Police Chief Craig Garris Friday afternoon.
Garris said the deceased man was identified as Anthony Garrett Absher, 31, of 409 South Cherry Street, Wilkesboro.
Wilkesboro officers went to the residence at 409 South Cherry Street Thursday after a man reported finding a deceased adult male in what Garris described as a construction dumpster behind the brick home at that address. Garris said the man found the body while checking for the source of a foul odor.
“We began our investigation and requested the assistance of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation throughout the evening,” said Garris. The body was sent off for an autopsy and was positively identified Friday.
“We are investigating the circumstances leading to his death. In the meantime, we are asking for public assistance with information,” he said.
Garris said anyone who can provide this information is asked to call the police department at 336-667-7277, preferably Monday-Friday between 8 a.m. and midnight, and speak with Capt. Jason Delbert.
He said people with relevant information may also call Wilkes Crime Stoppers at 336-667-8900 anytime and remain anonymous. He said this assistance with the case would be greatly appreciated.
“Our condolences to the family of Mr. Absher,” said Garris.
The chief said he didn’t wish to say any more about the case at this point.
Housing, water and developing an outdoor economy were among topics raised when town managers of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro gave updates in a Wilkes Chamber of Commerce government affairs program Thursday.
North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper and Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland both said parts of federal American Rescue Plan funds their municipalities receive will be set aside to help address housing needs.
Noland said $100,000 of Wilkesboro’s American Recovery Plan (ARP) funds will be set aside for this purpose. He said this is about 10% of the town’s ARP funds.
Hooper said he proposed using about $120,000 of North Wilkesboro’s federal ARP funds to promote housing development.
Neither town manager shared ideas on what could be done, but they agreed about the need for more housing in Wilkes. A recent study identified a serious shortage of rental and resident-owned housing at various prices levels in Wilkes.
“I don’t know exactly what to do, but I know money solves a lot of things,” said Noland. He added said that having enough and affordable housing is foundational for economic development.
“We hope to work with North Wilkesboro and the county” to address housing needs, Noland added.
He said he’d like to see Wilkes County government join the two towns by setting aside about 10% of its ARP funds to address housing needs. Noland said the three governing bodies should be able to come up with about $1 million for this purpose.
Hooper said that at the urging of North Wilkesboro officials, the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. recently convened meetings with builders for discussion of local regulatory obstacles to housing development.
He said feedback from this will be considered as North Wilkesboro officials look into revising zoning rules this summer.
Noland agreed with Hooper about needing to address regulatory issues.
Noland mentioned plans for multi-family housing behind the Wilkes Heritage Museum and on the former Bank of America property in downtown Wilkesboro and a 23-house Habitat for Humanity development called Bryant’s Village off South Cherry Street. He noted efforts with a developer to build more “workforce housing.”
Hooper said water remains the big issue for North Wilkesboro.
He said Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro plan to adopt a scope of work for an engineering firm’s study of how to make the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro water systems physically and chemically compatible.
“Depending on what the study finds, the two towns may approve a water-sharing agreement giving both more protection from droughts” and other water supply risks, Hooper added.
He said North Wilkesboro especially needs this due to the drought vulnerability of its water supply, a small reservoir on the Reddies River.
He said North Wilkesboro’s best alternative became buying water from Wilkesboro when obstacles prevented the town from building a water intake on the Yadkin.
Hooper said North Wilkesboro plans to keep its water treatment plant open and update it by installing the ActiFlo mechanical pre-treatment process to increase processing efficiency and safety
Similarly, Noland noted Wilkesboro’s plans for a $20 million upgrade to its water treatment plant that includes installing an ActiFlo system.
He said Wilkesboro officials want to be able to count on getting water from North Wilkesboro if something happens to make that necessary. The study Hooper mentioned will help make this possible, added.
Noland also noted the recent completion of a $1 million clarifier at the Wilkesboro Wastewater Treatment Plant, which was tied to expanded production and the addition of 150 jobs at the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex.
Noland said the two towns, county, Health Foundation, Wilkes Medical Center and other partners began focusing on developing an outdoor economy in Wilkes over a year ago. He said this can include efforts such as trying to draw a mountain bike manufacturer.
Hooper said these local partners are about to reach an agreement on hiring a firm to conduct a study on outdoor amenities locally and provide advice on promoting the county as a destination for outdoor tourism.
Hooper said Wilkesboro will likely use this to determine how to promote what it has while North Wilkesboro is more at the stage of needing to develop offerings.
Noland mentioned completion of the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons and outdoor events in downtown Wilkesboro that are drawing visitors. Restrooms are planned at the Commons and other improvements.
Noland said many people “discovered” Cub Creek Park and what it offers during the pandemic.
Improvements to the park are ongoing, including current construction of eight pickleball courts near South Bridge Street and a new handicapped-accessible playground near Oakwoods Road.
Cub Creek Park will be expanded with the town’s recent purchase of the Furches bottomland property along Cub and Little Cub creeks. This will include extending the Yadkin River Greenway up Cub Creek.
Hooper said North Wilkesboro is beginning to emerge from a period of austerity, but officials are still being very thoughtful about the financial situation.
Along with presenting a proposed budget last week, Hooper presented a supplemental spending plan that uses portions of the town’s ARP funds, proceeds from surplus property sales and reserve funds for infrastructure maintenance, beautification, housing and water system improvements.
Hooper listed things done in North Wilkesboro recently to promote economic development:
• breaking ground for installing a half-million-gallon water tower on the town industrial park property off Liberty Grove-River Road;
• adoption of updated economic development incentive guidelines, which Wilkesboro also adopted;
• passage of non-residential building ordinance that gives the town the authority to compel owners to repair dilapidated commercial structures. He said this will help protect the value of adjoining property. Grants will be offered to help eligible property owners pay for repairs.
“I like to say that North Wilkesboro was the driving force behind the small business relief grants managed by the EDC during the pandemic last year,” said Noland.
Noland said Wilkesboro’s fiscal 2021-22 budget is 18% larger than the prior year’s budget. He said all but about 1% of the increase is due to spending one-time dollars, mostly COVID-19-related, on capital projects.
He said these one-time dollars are being spent on water and sewer system improvements, paving streets and constructing sidewalks.
Noland also mentioned Wilkesboro’s:
• recent completion of the installation of new water lines in the Forest Hills subdivision;
• paving of (with curbs and gutters) an extension of Two Rivers Drive. Water and sewer lines were extended there also. He noted that a Harbor Freight store and Highway 55 restaurant will be built there;
• efforts to reopen Woodfield Way, where a culvert was washed out during flooding last year. Noland said it appears that that a bridge will be built there now, with the road hopefully reopening about a year from now;
• repairs where a big sinkhole appeared along School Street.
Noland said a company hired by the N.C. Department of Transportation is installing a new culvert under U.S. 421 as part of repairs to a sinkhole near the Winkler Mill Road intersection.