DOBSON — On the eve of the annual Surry County Board of Commissioners retreat and budget planning session, County Manager Chris Knopf said the county is “doing OK” financially, but he warned that belts have been tightened about as much as possible.
And more tight years are expected to lie ahead.
Knopf made the observations during a “state of the county” interview Thursday morning.
“I think financially we’re doing OK,” he said, “but we’re operating on fumes so to speak.”
He credited the county’s department heads with keeping services running in the face of shrinking departmental budgets.
“They’re making it possible,” he said. “Last year during the budget process, they came back to us with the bare minimum they could keep operating with.”
But despite the economic crunch, Knopf said the county is keeping on keeping on.
“Right now, our tax collection rates are good, and our departments have been able to stay within their budgets,” he said. “Pretty much across the board, they’re operating on just enough to get by.”
And with threats of reduced state and federal funding related to the turmoil in Washington, Knopf said he fears the impact of any further cuts.
“If we had to look at significant reductions in the department funding, it would affect services and personnel,” he said. “But as things stand now, I’d say we’re going to be able to get by.”
Knopf said the county’s saving grace this year is due to using $5.3 million of its fund balance to balance its $70 million budget.
While he said the board could use additional fund balance this year, it remains to be seen.
“That $5.3 million figure is a high number, and the question will be can we do that for another year,” he said. “While I foresee a similar budget situation this year, if we can’t use fund balance we’re going to have to cut somewhere, but I won’t know where that will be until mid-to-late spring.”
The county won’t have a real idea on where the budget stands for next year until the budget is balanced at the end of the fiscal year.
“But I can tell you that we’re improving financially,” he said. “Are we where we want to be? No, but we’re getting better.”
Working to get ahead
Like many county residents, the county manager said he and the board of commissioners are keeping a wary eye on finances.
“The goals for the county that were established in 2011 still apply,” he said. “And that is to focus on the financial stability of the county while supporting economic growth. Other than that, we’re focused on jobs, jobs, jobs.”
His goals, he said, mirror those of the board.
“These are set out to give us a blueprint with which to move forward,” Knopf said.
But Knopf said that in the economic climate, he doesn’t see any surplus money in the county’s future.
“I don’t see next year’s budget increasing or things loosening up at the department level financially,” he said. “Whether it decreases or not depends on two factors, the desires of the board, and whether we can afford to use as much out of our fund balance next year.”
According to the county manager, every year the budget process becomes a “balancing act” — trying to reconcile departmental needs with existing funds.
“It’s a balancing act because year in and year out, there is no way to address all the needs requested by the departments,” he said. “So the real work of the budget is trying to find a way to identify urgent capital needs and getting those addressed in the budget.
“Their requests are numerous, and there’s never an opportunity to address all of them in a single year.”
But despite the tough times, the county manager said he believes the county is moving in the right direction.
Knopf noted that three years ago, the county was in much more dire financial shape, even though it was operating with a $76.8 million budget.
“If you look at where we were three years ago and where we are today, there has been a significant reduction in the county’s budget, and we’ve still been able to maintain a level of service that exceeds my expectations.
“That’s a credit to the dedication of our employees, that they’ve been able to continue providing exceptional service.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.