With the deadline to adopt a budget looming, the county currently has a 5.25-cent property tax hike on the table after more cuts were made during a Monday Board of Commissioners work session packed with county department heads and employees.
Approximately $700,000 was shifted around in the budget, mostly cuts and some adjustments to revenue projections, to add to the $741,000 that was previously eliminated from the recommended 2014-15 budget, which initially proposed a 9 cent tax hike.
“It’s not like we don’t feel your pain — we do,” board chairman Jefferson Strickland said to a full house of county employees. “But we represent Sampson County and its citizens and we have to realize that and do what we think is best for the county.”
Among Monday’s cuts, the biggest was $330,000 being transferred out of the Department of Social Services budget, whose recommended county budget amount of roughly $5.06 million was reduced to $4.73 million. Additionally, monies from the water district for line sizing, recreation funds for a vehicle and some equipment, as well as three Sheriff’s Office replacement vehicles and some legal fees were axed from the proposed plan.
When all was done Monday evening, the previous budget cuts of 2 cents off the initially proposed 9 cent hike had been nearly doubled to 3.75 cents — a total of about $1.5 million in cuts to the manager’s recommended budget — bringing the proposed property tax increase to 5.25 cents. That would boost the rate from its current 78.5 cents to 83.75 cents per $100 valuation.
“The services will have to be provided at Social Services regardless,” finance officer David Clack said. “Foster care and adoption assistance accounts for the biggest part of (DSS director Sarah Bradshaw’s) budget. If the kids are there and they’re doing the foster care, we’re going to have to pay the bill. Hopefully we won’t have all the cost, but if we do, we’ll have to come back before the board and appropriate fund balance or take it out of contingency.”
Clack noted that the tax rate could only be set once, noting some revenue projections will not be met for the current year, compounding matters going forward. Commissioner Billy Lockamy said if the county had to have a tax increase, he didn’t want to follow it up with another.
“The recommended increase in the county contribution represented almost 2 cents on the tax rate,” Strickland noted of the DSS budget. “I felt like something had to be done based on that increase, that we had to look at some adjustments. I’m not saying the need is not there.”
Lockamy made a motion to accept the cuts, which Commissioner Jarvis McLamb quickly seconded.
Bradshaw reiterated to the board the immense needs of her already-stressed department and implored commissioners not to carry through with the cuts.
“Tonight is the first time I’ve seen this figure at all and today is my first knowledge of any discussion of a cut from our agency of this magnitude,” Bradshaw remarked. “The $330,000 county cut is on top of over $145,000 in cuts already made from what we projected (to county administrative staff).”
The DSS director said resources have been exhausted and the additional county contribution was needed just to make ends meet.
“We have staff over there tired of overtime. They’ve been doing it for two years now. They’ve done over 6,000 hours of overtime,” Bradshaw stated. “There are 23 temp staff hired right now. If we could afford such cuts, we would not have temps hired. I don’t think this is possible to last through the year. We cannot cut staff. There’s absolutely no way.”
Clack noted that cuts of $330,000 in county contribution would ultimately result in total cuts of about $660,000 to $990,000 as state and federal funding is dependent on those county figures.
Strickland said the cuts were not to any part of the existing budget, rather to the requested increase for 2014-15. Bradshaw said she understood that, but with DSS already cut for 2013-14, they were behind and struggling, the reason the requested increase was made in the first place.
“We are going to need over $200,000 more just to pay foster care board payments,” the DSS director noted. “You can’t even compare what our budget was last year. We had already far exceeded what was budgeted for our department anyway. That is just the trend.”
There are more calls, reports of abuse and neglect increased and the number of children in foster care has reached an all-time high. It is getting worse and worse, said Bradshaw, and with the constant stresses that puts on staff, the situation is reaching a boiling point.
“We have had social workers leaving left and right since I talked with (commissioners) in April — two supervisors, one because of stress,” Bradshaw attested. “It’s mandated services, there is no fluff in the budget. No matter what you budget, we have to keep on. We are a stressed department providing core services. I do not believe that type of agency is where you need to be cutting.”
The most important thing to remember is the children, adults and families who need to be served. Bradshaw said no cuts could be made to DSS staff, so resources would have to be reduced or most likely paid for later, negating any county cut by the end of the fiscal year.
“I don’t believe this is a wise decision because of what may happen before you can finish the budget year out,” Bradshaw remarked.
The vote ultimately came 4-1 with Commissioner Harry Parker casting the dissenting vote. Commissioner Albert Kirby did not vote, meaning his was an affirmative vote. A separate motion was made to cut the amount of replacement sheriff’s vehicles from 18 to 15, passing 3-2. Parker and Kirby dissented.
Lockamy asked Clack or county manager Ed Causey whether they could recommend areas for further cuts.
“We’ve sort of made our proposal,” Causey said. “We’re just receptive to the changes the board wants to make.”
Lockamy inquired as to what the long-term implications for the budget might be with a 5-plus cent tax increase, cutting nearly 4 cents from the recommended plan.
“To cut to the chase, you’ve made some changes but at the end of the day what did you really reduce as opposed to defer? You can defer expenses and there’s nothing wrong with that. The ultimate question is, if those things have to be purchased at some point in time, then we’re rolling it down the hill,” Causey stated.
That means more pressure is going to be placed on the county’s General Fund for next year, he said.
“It just tells you we have some challenges for a good long time,” Causey stated. “In essence I am concerned about the solvency of the county and the ability to meet all of our objectives in the future.”
Strickland asked if there was board support for a 5.25-cent tax hike. No one said anything, other than Lockamy pondering what public support would be for such a plan. McLamb said he had “some things he was working on,” but did not have materials with him.
“We’re running out of time,” Strickland pointed out.
“We still have a few more days,” McLamb answered.
Following a half-hour sandwich break, during which the board recessed and the conference room remained packed, the board came back into session and voted unanimously to reconvene to this Thursday, June 26, at 5 p.m. to further consider the budget. Causey was instructed to prepare an interim budget “just in case” a consensus was not reached at that time.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.