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County budget reflects rapid growth
Bryan County seal 2016

Editor’s note: This is a continuation of a series on growth.

At various times, Bryan County is touted as one of the fastest growing counties in the state, the South and/or the U.S.

The demand for services and infrastructure is growing too. At least that’s the case in Bryan County, where officials say the current population is about 40,000, up by 21 percent since 2010 and 260 percent since 1980. That growth shows up in the need to add classrooms and teachers, in congested traffic, or in seemingly ever-increasing numbers of calls for emergency services such as EMS, fire or law enforcement.

It also pressures local governments - not to mention taxpayers - to fund those additional services and the necessary infrastructure improvements.

In that regard, Bryan County’s publication outlining its 2019 budget with statistics on the county’s growth before noting its involvement in transportation projects such as the interchange at I-95 and Belfast Keller and the widening of a portion of Highway 144.

The document continues by highlighting the addition to Bryan County Fire and Emergency Services of two new fire engines and four tanker trucks, a new station and six more firefighters, and notes infrastructure investment helped complete Interstate Centre II was completed in Black Creek.

The publication also highlights plans for 2019 for more road improvements – including two new roundabouts on Belfast Keller – and some $1.2 million in “road resurfacing and rehabilitation projects” on both ends of the county.

Upgrades in emergency services, recreation and a $1.74 million investment in updating the county’s fleet of vehicles are also in the works this year.

All the above is covered early in a document that runs 105 pages and includes a wealth of detail about the county’s budget, which when various funds are combined is more than $47 million.

Among its other “highlights,” the county’s 2019 budget shows confidence that the local economy will continue to grow. Increases are forecast of $600,000 in ad valorem taxes, 3 percent in Local Option Sales Taxes, 20 percent in permit fees, an 18 percent growth in solid waste fees and 24 percent in fire fees - the latter due to hikes from last year’s $170 to $200 per home for solid waste collection and $162 to $200 for the fire fee.

Countywide, that’s an additional $68 homeowners will have to shell out, and that increase is almost as large as the entire fire fee of $70 residents paid until it was raised to $100 in 2007.

Back then, the county’s entire “working budget,” was slightly less than $16.63 million, and the county’s millage rate was 6.911 mills.

A decade later, in 2017, it was 9.016 mills in unincorporated Bryan County, 10 mills in Pembroke and 7.99 in Richmond Hill.

In August, 2018, the county commission passed “equalization,” which made the millage rate the same 8.8 mills for all residents in Bryan County. That prompted Richmond Hill to file suit, and that lawsuit is still in the courts.

How it’s budgeted

Bryan County now breaks its budget into separate funds. The largest,the general countywide services fund, is more than $22.97 million and covers services provided to all residents.

Property taxes make up $11.344 million, almost half of the countywide revenue, according to Bryan County Finance Director John Rauback.

A separate $5.77 million fund is there pay for services provided to only those residents in unincorporated areas. It comes from diverse sources ranging from mobile home taxes to taxes on alcoholic beverages, timber and insurance premiums, among others. The biggest revenue source for the unincorporated services fund are the $200 fire tax and $200 solid waste fee, each of which are expected to bring in about $1.66 million to county coffers.

The county also has a special fund of $19.7 million and a minor fund of $609,720.

The special fund is funded through the county’s portion of E911 fees, water and sewer fees, two Special Local Option Sales Taxes, the recently passed Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax and the recently passed impact fee ordinance, which alone is projected to bring in about $3 million.

The minor funds include revenues from and for various law enforcement and court functions.

So where does it go?

The biggest cost to taxpayers countywide is public safety. The Bryan County Sheriff’s Department 2019 budget is set at slightly less than $5.08 million, while Bryan Fire and Emergency Services will have a budget of $3.41 million. Roads ($2.41 million), recreation ($2.12 million), and county government ($1.96 million) are also in the top five of county expenses in the countywide budget, which covers services provided to all the county’s residents. Fire protection ($2.21 million), solid waste ($1.78 million), planning and zoning ($818,000), and engineering and inspections ($424,100) make up more than 90 percent of the county’s unincorporated budget for 2019, according to Rauschman.

More than 60 percent of all the county’s spending goes to its employees – a combination of full and part timers that amounts to 316 full time workers, according to Ben Taylor, the county administrator.

Worth noting: All the county’s full time workers got a 2 percent cost of living increase in 2019, in addition to a 1 percent longevity increase on their anniversary.

In addition to the six additional emergency service personnel added to the ranks in 2019, the county added two staffers to planning and zoningand one position each to clerk of courts, building maintenance, magistrate court, recreation, water and sewer.

As for the county’s rolling stock, commissioners budgeted for eight new squad cars for BCSO, an additional ambulance and three fire pumper trucks for BFEMS, four pickup trucks, a dump truck, a front end loader, an excavator, two tractors with mowers and vehicles for planning and zoning, water and sewer, the tax assessor and engineering.

And, among the projects financed in 2019 are $2.5 million for the new fire stations, $2.9 million for Henderson Park’s field and gymnasium; the roundabouts at Belfast River and Harris Trail and Belfast River and Belfast Keller ($1.9 million each); $800,000 worth of road paving, $500,000 for elevating Mill Hill Road in South Bryan; as well as $550,000 for Black Creek Church and Belfast Keller Road.

Meeting needs

 Bryan County says it is “determined to meet the needs of its citizens in regards to county service,” according to the budget document, “In this high growth environment, continuing to deliver those services at expected levels can only be made possible by the continued commitment of increased funding levels and continued dedication to efficiency of operations.” That’s led to a 58 percent increase in spending on planning and zoning personnel since 2013, from $258,919 to $409,600. It’s meant a 70 percent increase in EMS personnel since 2013, from about $1.24 million to $2.12 million, and the county increased spending on fire protection from $445,924 to more than $1.12 million over the same time period, an increase of 152 percent.

The county’s also invested more in public works, increasing its personnel costs by 41 percent since 2013, from $773,188 to just under $1.1 million.

Up next: Pembroke and Richmond Hill.

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