An interim budget took effect Tuesday that will allow county government to operate through July, with further discussion to take place in the coming weeks on a proposed 2014-15 plan that calls for a 5.25-cent tax hike and all departments directed to ax their budgets by 5 percent so impacts can be reviewed.
That directive by the Board of Commissioners will mean sending employees home, department heads said.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton took to Facebook Monday to share his displeasure regarding the 5 percent proposed cut with the nearly 6,000 people who have liked his page.
“Some of our county commissioners have proposed a 5 percent ‘across-the-board’ cut in the county budget. I’m all for less government and cutting waste but, sometimes, an ‘across the board cut’ doesn’t cut waste — it cuts muscle,” the sheriff stated.
He pointed out that the proposed 5 percent cut would force him to eliminate 11 jobs in the Sheriff’s Office.
“As a practical matter, that means fewer deputies on the road — which means response times to calls will go up. EMS and Fire would also be cut,” he noted. “Across-the-board cuts allow elected officials to avoid making tough choices, but they’re seldom the best way to balance a budget.”
Thornton, contacted by phone Tuesday, stood by the comments and said that the 11 positions lost could be closer to 13.
“Anywhere from 70-75 percent of these budgets are salaries and benefits,” Thornton has attested. “There is only 25 or 30 percent at best that goes toward those operating expenses, so we will be put in a position as department heads to either cut salaries or cut bodies. I would certainly have to cut positions before I would cut salaries.”
And a dozen positions is likely what it would cost, the sheriff noted.
“It could be even more than that,” he remarked. “I don’t think people realize (the negative impact) — unless they attend these meetings — until it happens.”
Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Thornton said he was echoing the thoughts of many in his comments, which should not be seen as a “knee-jerk reaction” but as a way to keep people informed of what was being proposed by commissioners. In a way, he said, it was also a viable way to apply “pressure” to board members by showing them that public opposition exists to such an across-the-board cut.
As of noon Tuesday, more than 140 people liked Thornton’s post and in excess of 50 had left comments of support.
“We’ve probably had about 7,000 looks on that post,” the sheriff said. “That’s a good tool to get the word out. Sometimes people don’t know what’s going on and they need to.”
He praised the county’s first responders, law enforcement and emergency services personnel and said cuts would adversely affect that quality of service.
Emergency Management director Ronald Bass, also reached Tuesday, agreed with Thornton that services would significantly dip and personnel would have to be sent home. Likewise, response times would go up, he echoed.
“We’re in the beginning phases of going through this right now,” said Bass of the cuts.
Bass has the Emergency Management budget to consider along with several others, including Communications, EMS, the Radio Tower and Volunteer Fire Departments. Those volunteer departments receive district tax funds, but the county also supplements those budgets, which are expected to take a hit, he said.
“We’re going to have to take a good, strong look at what is going to be the least painful (cuts). Some are going to get hit harder than others. For some, the cuts are probably going to be painful,” the EM director stated. “It could mean sending people home. If we cut anyone, the impact will be felt in delayed transport times and delayed response times.”
The 5 percent across-the-board cut for each of the county’s 20-plus departments was considered last week upon a motion made by Commissioner Jarvis McLamb, a Republican, and seconded by Commissioner Albert Kirby, a Democrat. While it was ultimately tabled, county staff was directed to have all departments put together budgets reflecting that cut for further board review during the interim period.
“Every department will suffer from this,” board chairman Jefferson Strickland stated of the 5 percent cut.
County manager Ed Causey praised commissioners with thinking about the long-term solvency of the county in considering permanent cuts, but expressed concerns of a 5 percent slash for 2014-15.
“There will be some departments that in order for them to meet those cuts it’s going to have to be people,” Causey asserted. “I think it’s going to take looking at every department and giving each department head an opportunity to sit with you and talk about the impacts and whether or not that is something that you can sustain. If we’re going to reduce the cost of government and reduce expenditures, ultimately we’re going to have to reduce the number of people currently on our rolls.”
For small county departments, like the Veterans Office, the impact could be drastic.
“When you look at taking 5 percent of my budget, it will deplete the Veterans programs,” Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles said, noting the Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs specifically. “Those are the only two programs other than this half of the office (shared with Board of Elections) that the county has for veterans.”
Knowles has repeatedly said she would put Sampson’s veterans services up against any other office in the state, however a cut to the department would adversely affect what is offered. The Veterans Office and Board of Elections share a full-time person, which actually spends about 90 percent of her time with the Veterans Office. That position, along with many others, are fair game under the proposed 5 percent slash.
“They’re looking for permanent cuts,” Knowles remarked. “We can cut a position, but we can’t cut people’s salaries.”
A huge proponent of the employee pay study currently ongoing, Knowles, a county employee for nearly 40 years, said employees have to be compensated what they deserve.
“That’s the little bit of morale you have,” she stated of the pay study. While she said she felt confident that commissioners will carry that through, the thought of a 5 percent cut that could cost jobs sends a mixed message. “You can talk the talk every year about how ‘the employees are our most valuable asset.’ The walk is not there. It’s time to walk the walk. When you know a 5 percent cut can send people home, is that really showing concern?”
Mostly, she feels for the veterans, whose programs seem to regularly be the first ones that fall under the budget ax at the state, federal and local levels.
“Veterans lose every time there is a budget cut,” she said. “I know this is hard, but I think the board should consider a 7-cent tax increase. Then we wouldn’t be taking away from the veterans and every other department. These small departments, like us, the Animal Shelter, Aging, we’re to the bone. There is no fluff.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.