DOBSON — With numbers like $20.1 million and $14.9 million being thrown around, it would be easy to think that Surry County is simply swimming in money.
But according to Assistant County Manager for Budget and Finance Betty Taylor, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Taylor said that while those numbers are accurate representations of how much money the county has in the bank, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Surry County Board of Commissioners can just start writing checks to pay for things.
She noted the county has multiple funds that are primarily being restricted to use for specific projects.
“We have other types of funds, like capital project funds, but the money in those accounts don’t necessarily demonstrate the financial well-being of the county because it could be earmarked for projects, and having a balance in those funds could mean the project hasn’t been completed,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t mean you’re rich.”
The fund to watch is the county’s general fund, but Taylor said that even the money in that account is often restricted from being spent.
“All fund balance is fund balance, but what we’re primarily concerned with is the general fund balance, which is the major operating fund for the county, and where most of the expenses incurred by the county are paid,” she said.
At the end of fiscal year 2011, the county reported a fund balance of about $13.1 million, or about 17.5 percent of the amount of money paid out by the county.
By June 30, 2012, that number had climbed to $14.9 million, or about 20.4 percent of expenses.
It is an increase Taylor said is “a step in the right direction.”
But much of that money is restricted from being spent by the county.
With a total fund balance, including encumbered funds, of about $20.1 million last year, Taylor said that $5.3 million is restricted by law or contract and can’t be spent, while another $5.5 million is restricted to being used for the following year’s coming expenses. An additional $4.9 million is restricted to pay off debt owed to the state. A little more of it has been committed to county operations.
“By contract, we have a large part of our fund balance restricted to pay off future debt,” she said. “It is counted in your total fund balance, but we have to, by contract, set it aside for a specific purpose, and it isn’t something we can just decide to spend.
“Only $3.8 million was unassigned, meaning that it hasn’t been assigned to be spent for a specific purpose and isn’t restricted,” she said, noting that the figure is “a good fund balance.”
Taylor noted that over the past couple of years, the board of commissioners has dipped into the unencumbered fund balance to help balance the budget, a move that most think will happen again this year.
If the county decides to use available fund balance to balance the budget, it will be done to keep the current 58.2 cents per $100 tax rate, she noted.
“Having a little available fund balance allows us to have stability in our tax rates,” she said. “Over the past few years we dipped into the fund balance so we didn’t have to raise taxes.
“We’ve cut budgets and used our fund balance to survive without having to raise taxes,” Taylor added. “That’s your story, because if we hadn’t had the fund balance on hand it’s likely we’d have had to raise taxes. That’s what it means most.
“We’ve had to take some hard looks at our budget, and make some difficult decisions about what to cut, but we’ve been able to continue providing services by watching the bottom line and holding the tax rate.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.