The second budget planning workshop for the town is scheduled for Thursday, May 6 at 3 p.m. at the Highlands Conference Center.
At this meeting the town manager will present a draft of his proposed budget. This proposed budget is driven by department projected needs and from the feedback of commissioners.
A large portion of the budget will be toward infrastructure needs such as water and sewer upgrades. Based on presentations and discussions at the town retreat in March, again the town has major needs in the water and sewer areas that will require funding this budget year, as well as in the future. We cannot fall behind in these critical areas.
Maintaining water and sewer assets isn’t only a Highlands issue, it is a critical problem across the state. I recently reviewed a report where the state is providing assistance to towns and counties to upgrade water and sewer systems.
Several towns in Western Carolina are getting state support from this special fund intended for underfunded systems with critical problems.
Highlands doesn’t qualify for this support. It is analogous to the tier ranking systems of counties.
Recently Macon county moved up to a top tier ranking of 3. That rating indicates the county is prosperous and in a strong economic position. Highlands strong economy was a significant factor in Macon County getting this top rating.
The flip side to the Tier 3 designation is that it places the county in a lower priority when seeking state and federal grant support.
So, Highlands has a relatively strong water and sewer system when compared to some surrounding systems that are a carrying high debt loads and have failing systems.
Highlands simply doesn’t rank high for this state support. We really have no major debt and our water and sewer systems are functioning well.
For instance, we replaced the old, aging Buck Horn water tank several years ago with a new one that also doubled the capacity. The 1.2-million-dollar project was financed over a two year period with existing town funds. In other words, we did a “pay as you go” model.
This “pay as you go” approach will probably continue in the coming years when we address such things as water line replacements and water plant equipment upgrades. Also, we will continue to look for grant opportunities, especially at the federal level.
We are working with an engineering firm to identify funding sources. Engineered plans are have been developed if grant opportunities become available.
There is always the option for the town going to a longterm borrowing strategy to aggressively address these future infrastructure needs. Many communities have adopted this approach and carry rather heavy debt service loads. Relying on bond initiatives that exceed town reserves has never been a Highlands strategy.
The budget workshop on May 6 is open to the public for those who would like to hear the discussion. A public hearing for the proposed budget will be held at the June Highlands Town Board meeting.
- Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor