The Sampson Board of Commissioners has cut some $741,000 from the 2014-15 recommended budget, in essence whittling a plan that proposes a 9 cent tax hike down to 7 cents.
The approval of those cuts, proposed by board chairman Jefferson Strickland during a Tuesday special session, came after heated deliberations between commissioners and candid comments from county manager Ed Causey, who defended contentions his recommended budget was “unrealistic.”
“I have poured over this budget,” Strickland said. “It was not just to look for ‘cut, cut, cut’ but was done with heartfelt consideration and rational thinking … realizing I cannot support a 9 cents tax increase. I knew I had to start somewhere.”
Strickland outlined a list of $741,120 in cuts, amounting to nearly 2 cent on the tax rate. One penny on the tax rate equals $397,000.
In outlining his cuts, Strickland pointed to the $500,000 proposed to be set aside to partially implement a pay and benefits study for employees. That amount represents six months, with projected implementation on Jan. 1, 2015. Strickland requested that be reduced to $300,000 — a budget cut of $200,000 — equating to an annual cost of $600,000, noting commissioners did not know yet what would come out of the study.
The board chairman recommended that Clinton City Schools and Sampson County Schools proposed 2014-15 per pupil funding be reduced from the recommended $900 to $880, a reduction of $231,120. It is currently $857 for both schools, based upon an estimated student population of 11,556.
Among other reductions to the proposed budget, Strickland asked that $670,000 in recommended capital outlay for Sampson Community College be cut to $540,000, which would cover solely the cost to repair the college’s auditorium. The $130,000 axed was designated for improved lighting at the college and other maintenance items.
In other cuts, the chairman noted, the $150,000 being set aside for new state-mandated voting machines for the Elections Board (the estimated total cost is $450,000 to be fully funded over three years) should instead become a “$50,000 placeholder,” meaning a budget cut of $100,000.
Wrapping up the cuts, Strickland proposed that $80,000 of the money set aside to demolish the old County Home building be used to fund a roof replacement for the Department of Aging.
Causey said he had concerns with cutting into the $670,000 intended for SCC, which was part of the $900,000 proposed to be placed into a capital reserve account for maintenance along with $230,000 for county government buildings. He expressed his concerns with cutting those capital reserve allocations, whose need will only grow.
“We proposed what we proposed because we thought that was what was needed,” said Causey.
During the session, commissioner Albert Kirby called the budget-cutting exercise “almost laughable.”
“It’s like a little game of good cop/bad cop where Mr. Causey ends up being the bad cop who says we’re going to raise your taxes by 9 cents,” Kirby stated. “Then you come in and have this exercise where you’re going to come in and pull off $700,000 and you raise the taxes by 7 cents.”
He said “the true way of doing things” would have been to bring up budget cuts during the board’s many monthly sessions dating back to last September. No one ever did, Kirby pointed out.
“I’ll play the game,” said Kirby, “but what I think we ought to do is have Mr. Causey—”
“I assure you this is not a game,” the chairman said, his voice as raised as it has ever been in a meeting. “I’m offended at the comments you’re making when I make the effort to do this, hours upon hours. This is as serious a business as I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never been more serious in trying to do what’s best for the county and trying to do it with my heart and mind. This is not a game, I assure you.”
Kirby noted that he could not vote for a 9 cent increase or a 7 increase increase, while Commissioner Jarvis McLamb said the board needed to “cut, cut and cut again” so there would be no raises in the tax rate.
“I think Mr. Causey ought to present us with a budget that is more realistic,” Kirby said. “A 9 cent increase is not realistic.”
No board direction
Causey said he took exception to that, noting his budget was an “honest response” based on the county climate and outside factors out of the county’s control.
During a series of monthly budget meetings dating back to September, county staff offered departmental reviews and budget recaps countywide before inquiring as to what modifications or cuts the board wished to make.
“As it was, we left that budget intact. The board offered us no direction,” Causey stated.
Compounding the issue is federal and state funding issues that have adversely affected local budgets. Along the way, the board has been kept abreast of those issues as they are known by staff, the county manager noted.
“I think this budget fairly represents the circumstances. The board can make whatever (modifications) they want, but to sit here and tell me I didn’t prepare a realistic budget based on a year of budget meetings and all the things that were happening at the federal and state level, then it’s beyond me to understand what is going on,” Causey remarked.
Additionally, he mentioned the construction debt that has loomed over the county, whose previous board members agreed to an incremental tax hike that was never fully realized. In recent years, the board has absorbed expenses and deferred capital improvements.
“But to sit here and tell me this is my fault — I will take my fair share of the responsibility, but we’re also responding as best we can to the direction the board is giving us on a monthly basis. I don’t know if we’ve had direction that would allow us to do anything else,” Causey commented. “What we’ve tried to do is be reasonable. We’ve given you the best budget we can based on the information we have.”
The county manager said he is a taxpayer too and doesn’t want to see a 9 cent tax rate. However, until “real cuts” can be made, which would mean sending people home, a 9 cent tax increase is the most viable option for the life of the county, he said.
“If we keep deferring expenses as opposed to doing real cuts, as a county we’re going to head off a cliff. We’re headed for a crossroads if something is not done,” he asserted.
Kirby asked for two budgets, one with a 3 cent tax hike and another that held the line, stating that he wanted to see what those “real cuts” look like on paper. He respectfully asked that the board consider other options.
“This board has an inability to get together on the majority of most issues,” Causey said plainly. “You’re asking me to make the employees of this county become pawns in a political game. I cannot give you a zero budget without changing the face of county government … and significantly reduce services to a level that is less than I think anybody would find acceptable.”
The board ultimately decided unanimously on Strickland’s proposed cuts.
“It’s a start,” Commissioner Harry Parker attested.
“It’s a good start,” McLamb agreed.
The public will have the opportunity to give comments about the proposed budget at a public hearing set for 7 p.m. this Monday, June 16. Following Monday’s public hearing, the board will decide whether to meet then or schedule a separate meeting. The full budget is now available for view at www.sampsonnc.com.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.