The struggling economy and its impact on every aspect of Sampson’s rural community was at the forefront of discussion at a town hall forum earlier this week, prompting local leaders to tout just how crucial public input was in today’s budget-tightening process.
Earlier this week, in front of an audience packed with members of the general public, county manager Ed Causey delivered a message that has often been spoken about with the Sampson County Board of Commissioners and in the presence of county employees and department heads.
It was one of mounting debt and the resulting prioritizing of countywide needs.
“If you look at the debt structure we had in Sampson County 10 or 12 years ago, you would find that it was plus or minus $20 million. If you looked at our audit today, you would find that our debt structure for all the construction that has gone on is plus or minus $140 million. That equates to about 14 percent of our budget.”
To pay that debt, the county has instituted a hike over the years of 14 to 15 cents, where 20 to 21 cents was probably needed, he said, citing figures that became well-known during July’s budget deliberations.
“If you really get down to brass tax and want to cut through the mustard when you start looking at what we’re going to do in the next few years, it will be how are we going to deal with that shortfall?” said Causey.
Looking at cutting and modifying programs will be vital. He applauded local commissioners for agreeing to meet monthly in addition to the board’s regular meetings, starting in September, solely to discuss everything budget.
“If you’re looking at the budgetary constraints that we’re going to have to consider for the next three or four years, this is one reason this forum is so important,” Causey said. “Trust me folks, you can have an impact. We’re going to go through a process where the county is going to determine what services are priority and what level of service we will provide. We have a number of services that are mandated … but the public can have some input on the levels that are provided.”
On the one hand, the county needs to decide what services will be offered; on the other, there is a half billion dollars worth of buildings responsible for maintaining.
“In order to prepare for our long-term future, we have got to make sure we have a plan in place that covers for the adequate management and maintenance of those buildings,” said Causey. “If we do not, we will be heading off a cliff in the next 15 to 20 years.”
Just as important as the physical side is, the human side and the county’s roughly 550 employees need to be taken care of. Causey said the county will be looking at it pay structure to ensure there is not only adequate pay for services, but that future liabilities are in check.
That will be just some of the topics for those monthly budget meetings, the subjects for which will be announced in advance. And there will be a chance for public participation.
“The people who do not think they have an opportunity to participate in government, I can assure you that our commissioners will listen to their constituents and if you have views on any of these subjects, I would encourage you to call your commissioners or call county staff,” Causey said. “In many instances, we will give you the opportunity to participate.”
Just as challenges are plentiful in the county, they are just as prevalent for the City of Clinton.
“We’re facing a down economy and most of us have aging infrastructure,” said interim city manager Shawn Purvis. “Not just 30-40 years old, but water lines that are almost 100 years old, roads that people drive on every day … these things are high-dollar cost and it’s a challenge to make sure we keep those up.”
While rural agriculture and rural agri-business has been deemed the number one employer in North Carolina, the majority of people live in urban areas of the state, which can produce competing interests in the General Assembly, Purvis said.
So how does Sampson compete?
“We’re obviously not in the metro area, so as we try to improve education, as we try to improve infrastructure, the quality of life — things the define our community, that define Clinton and Sampson County — and bring people to our area, those are challenges we are going to face and we have to be ready,” said Purvis.
He noted the N.C. 24 expansion and the effect it would have locally, including millions of dollars in relocated utilities for the city.
“There is a cost of that but we also have to be fiscally responsible at the same time,” said Purvis. “Those are the challenges we face and I’m happy to have a City Council who understands that.”
Like Causey, Clinton-Sampson planning director Mary Rose pointed to public input and participation in shaping the topics brought before local leaders.
“That is what the Planning and Development Department is all about,” said Rose. “We are beginning to undertake some long-range planning for both the city and the county. We are going to be looking at transportation plan for Sampson County and the City Council has given the go-ahead to move forward with a comprehensive plan for the City of Clinton, which will reach out to 2035. We want to evaluate where the City of Clinton is now, where we would like to be in 2035 and how we get there.”
Whether that is for the Clinton 2035 Plan, the Comprehensive Transportation Plan or a survey for any other plan or program that will affect the local landscape, public input is always urged, Rose noted.
“Hopefully each of you will be involved in that process. When Mr. Causey mentioned public input, that is what I would like to encourage,” said Rose. “When we call on citizens of Clinton and Sampson County to fill out a brief survey or attend a community input meeting, what that means is we really, really want you to come out and provide that public input — because we’re very interested in what the citizens’ concerns are and what issues they would like for us to address.”
“Partnerships, community involvement and citizen input are what it is all about,” she said.
Causey said those are vital to the process, a key cog in tough decision-making that will shape Sampson’s future.
“In Sampson County, we don’t have problems, we have challenges,” said Causey. “We are at a crossroads of having many opportunities to improve the lives of all our citizens for the next 20 years. The future for Sampson County can be very bright if we choose to make it bright.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.