DOBSON — Surry County could invest $85 million in much needed capital projects throughout the course of the next six years, according to a financial consulting firm.
Having recessed from a prior meeting, the Surry County Board of Commissioners met last week to hear the presentation of representatives of D.E.C. Associates Inc., a firm hired to assist commissioners and county staff with the development of a long-term financial strategy for the county.
Doug Carter, who formerly worked in public sector finance and founded the firm 14 years ago, told board members they’ve already taken a key first step toward ensuring dollars are available to address capital needs in the county’s school systems and general county government needs such as additional space at the detention center.
In the budget adopted by commissioners, county staff included a capital projects fund — money that is set aside strictly for use in capital needs.
According to Carter, that step will hasten the county’s ability to begin financing capital projects.
“You have done a really good job in a short period of time in getting this started,” Carter told commissioners. “You’ve accomplished this much faster than other folks.”
Carter said, though it’s difficult to see given the complexity of the county’s budget, Surry County is funding more than $9.5 million in capital expenditures in the 2016-17 fiscal year’s budget, a number which includes debt service for projects which have already been completed.
In short, Carter and his staff used that number as a base-line number for what the county can contribute each year to capital needs. Once factors such as a conservative growth rate are considered, the consulting firm knows how much reoccurring revenue will come into the capital fund.
Additionally, as board Chairman Buck Golding noted, debt will be rolling off of the county’s books throughout that period of time, allowing the county to incur new debt to undertake new capital projects.
When the finance team calculated those factors and considered the trends of all financing options available to counties in North Carolina, the firm came up with numbers as to how much debt the county can afford to incur throughout the next few years.
The plan, which does not consider any possible large increases to the stream of revenue such as a property tax increase or a change to the sales tax structure, would call for the county to finance $8 million for use in general county projects in 2017, $30 million for schools projects in 2019, $17 million in 2020 for general government projects and another $30 million for school capital projects in 2022.
Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves asked commissioners how they planned to fund all needed school projects, mentioning a study completed in 2014.
In 2013 and 2014 a consultant conducted facilities’ needs studies for all three districts in the county. The end result was the studies calling for a combined $173 million in improvements throughout the course of the subsequent ten years.
“That number is way over the $85 million mark,” said Reeves. “It would help with phase one (of three proposed phases). Where do we stand with the other costs?”
Commissioner Larry Phillips noted the numbers presented were meant as a “ground zero,” numbers which reflect what the county can afford at current funding levels.
Board members noted if general obligation bonds — which require a vote of the public — or a tax increase was passed, additional funds could be available. The possibility of a change to a sales tax article could also free up some monies for use in school capital projects.
County Manager Chris Knopf said he looks forward to having a long-term financial plan set, something which will outlast his tenure with the county.
“What excites me the most — and I won’t be here to see it — is there will come a time when the manager and board will just have money (in the capital fund) to pay for these projects,” said Knopf.
Commissioner Eddie Harris noted the development of a long-term plan will “require a significant amount of discipline from this board” and future county commissioners.
One such instance is the assumption the county will always have $9.5 million — plus the growth of that $9.5 million — available each year for capital use. That means the county mustn’t divert those dollars for any additional operational costs it incurs.
“That will force us to run county government more efficiently,” said Knopf, who indicated the capital dollars would be placed in the fund and if cuts needed to happen, they would happen to operational costs.
Andrew Carter, who presented the figures to the board, noted the long-term plan is a “living document,” which must be changed when matters occur which affect the numbers.
Carter also said the estimates included in his work are “conservative.”
“Reality should always beat my forecasts.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.