By Jesse Wood
June 4, 2013. Before adopting the upcoming fiscal year 2013-14 budget on Tuesday morning, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners made a few adjustments.
Commissioner David Blust motioned taking $50,000 from the $221,000 that was allocated to Smoky Mountain Center, in County Manager Deron Geouque’s recommended budget and moving a portion of those funds to select local nonprofits.
Smoky Mountain Center is a local management entity responsible for managing, coordinating, facilitating and monitoring mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services in more than a dozen counties in Western North Carolina.
Blust motioned for $13,300 of the $50,000 to go towards these select nonprofits:
- Foscoe-Grandfather Community Center received an increase of $4,000 for a total of $5,000
- Western Youth Network received an increase of $1,500 for a total of $1,500
- Mountain Alliance received an increase of $1,300 for a total of $10,000
- Hunger and Health Coalition received an increase of $2,500 for a total of $8,500
- Green Valley Community Park received an increase of $4,000 for a total of $8,000.
The motion passed 4-1 with Commissioners Perry Yates, John Welch, Billy Kennedy voting with Blust to fund nonprofits with a portion of the Smoky Mountain allocation. Chair Nathan Miller voted against the motion.
In the budget retreats in April, Chair Nathan Miller suggested cutting Smoky Mountain by $50,000, however that never happened at that time. Miller, however on Tuesday, refused to vote for allocating more money to nonprofits.
Miller noted that “lots of counties” – including Haywood, Caldwell, Avery, Wilkes and Alleghany, have decreased its funding to Smoky Mountain without a drop in services.
Even with the $50,000 decrease, Miller said that Watauga still ranks “second highest” in terms of funding the LME.
Initially, Kennedy voted alongside Miller, however Kennedy changed his vote before the end of the meeting. Kennedy, who represents the county on the board, wanted to fund nonprofits but didn’t want to cut Smoky Mountain funding.
“I just think this is shortsighted. I don’t understand what you are going to gain,” Kennedy said, adding that by not funding mental health needs in the county, hidden costs will show up in other areas such as the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office.
Kennedy also said that the county receives well over $221,000 in mental health services from Smoky Mountain and that each county funds Smoky Mountain on a per-capita basis.
“If you look at total mental health costs [in the county], it’s well over $221,000,” Kennedy said. “To cut a quarter of mental health to this county is wrong. I am very concerned about the safety to this county … If we don’t take care of mental health issues, the sheriff ends up caring for them, and that’s a hidden cost we are passing along.”
Welch suggested multiple times that he would prefer to hold another budget work session to finalize some changes rather than amending it in “hastily” during Tuesday’s meeting.
Welch also motioned reallocating $17,800 – that was initially cut from nonprofits in the April budget work sessions and moved into the county’s future capital improvement plan – and reducing funding from Beech Mountain Parks and Recreation, which will receive $2,500, to further fund nonprofits in light of the sales tax redistribution that leaves the Town of Boone with nearly $1.8 million in revenue cuts. Only Welch and Kennedy voted for Welch’s motion, so it did not pass.
With the remainder of the $50,000 cut to Smoky Mountain, Miller made a motion to give $36,700 to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office for bullet-proof vests, uniforms and a SWAT shield. He also referred to slain Deputy William Mast who died in the line of duty in the summer of 2012.
Then, Kennedy said, “Since you brought up Mast’s death … ” and noted that Mast was responding to a domestic dispute brought on by an individual who was mentally-unstable.
In reference to the prior $50,000 cut to Smoky Mountain, Kennedy added that the county should make attempts to “avoid” incidences like that before they happen by funding mental health programs instead of cutting them.
“I am very concerned about other officers in danger. I think we can find this money in other places,” Kennedy said. “We are making very unwise decisions.”
In the end no one opposed Miller’s motion and the $36,700 was moved to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office budget contingent upon being used for uniforms and equipment.
In the audience were community members, many of whom were wearing pink in support of nonprofits – including Hospitality House, which has received zero funding from the county in the prior two budgets as well as the upcoming budget.
One woman in attendance was visibly upset and voiced loudly, “And nothing for the Hospitality House?”
In reference to nonprofit allocations by the county, Yates said he received several phone calls recently to the effect that people should privately fund nonprofits and governments should not use tax dollars to fund nonprofits.
Miller said that he would rather not fund nonprofits at all.
“I have stated my position pretty clearly. I ran on that position and it’s been my position coming on three years,” Miller said, adding that he didn’t mind one-time requests such as the recent emergency funding to Southern Appalachian Historical Association (SAHA) for “Horn in the West.”
He added, though, that many one-time requests turn into annual requests.
Welch said that many of the nonprofits need a “shot in the arm” similar to what SAHA received earlier this year. He again asked for another work session before the entire upcoming budget adoption went to a vote.
Kennedy added, “I think this has not been done in a very good way. A lot of immediate needs and longer-term needs are not being met. People are falling through the cracks. These people need help. We are not giving them enough. There is hunger in the county, and I wish we could do better.”
In the end, Miller said he was pleased with the budget, which gave a cost-of-living raise to county employees, “sufficiently and adequately” funded all departments in the county and now helps the sheriff’s department to purchase bullet-proof vests that needed replacement.
“I am happy with the budget, so I’ll be voting in favor,” Miller said.
Miller, Yates and Blust voted in favor of the adopted budget while Kennedy and Welch voted no.
Scroll down the HCPress.com/Government page for more stories on the 2013-14 county budget.