As first drafts of county departmental budgets are being submitted and subsequently reviewed, county officials have talked about a more thorough process that will see commissioners heavily involved from the get-go.
Commissioner Albert Kirby inquired as to early board involvement in the budget process during last month’s planning session. County manager Ed Causey said in a recent meeting that he would like to facilitate that.
“We would like to have a pre-budget planning workshop in mid-April to talk about some of the items in the budget to potentially get some direction from the board on some items and maybe give some updates on where we are,” said Causey. “We’re looking for those ways to improve our process and, as we get into some of those discussions, that might be an opportunity where if we know we want to do some things or know we don’t want to do some things, we can get some direction from the board that will help us focus in on the budget.”
Causey said mid-April was a goal for a meeting, but no date has yet been set. The board will be juggling its regular meeting at the beginning of April and Board of Equalization and Review hearings at the end of the month. The county manager said he would like to allocate about three hours for the session.
“We will, of course, have some topics. As discussion goes around, if you have particular items you want to bring up, we can include those as well,” Causey said.
Initial drafts of county department budgets were due Friday. Causey said those budgets will be examined as it relates to the whole picture. Next month, the budgets will be trimmed down.
“We will come back in earnest in April and start our due diligence of trying to narrow down,” said Causey. “If you want any of that information, we have the perfect vehicle because I think most of that stuff (finance officer) David (Clack) is going to be emailing it directly to you. If you want to see some of that information, we would be delighted to include you and forward to you when it is available.”
Commissioners already have a wealth of information from the three-day planning session in February. Twelve department heads provided written insights — some quite lengthy — for their particular departments and general county government concerns.
Kirby has asked that, as the budget is compiled, commissioners be included in the process at an earlier stage.
“Especially this year, we know we’re going to be looking at how tough it is going to be in terms of trying to keep costs down. If we could kind of get involved early on to get an idea of what the true needs are in the county, it would help me out a lot,” Kirby said. “Our mindset — help me if I’m wrong Commissioner (Jarvis) McLamb — I’m thinking our minds ought to be on, like Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said, doing more with less.”
Debt service looms over the next budget year, which along with the tax rate, was a point of contention that split the board into a 2-2 deadlock and led to an interim budget adoption last June before former commissioner John Blanton broke the tie the following month. At that time, Kirby, who voted against the 2012-13 budget along with McLamb (they also dissented over the 2011-12 plan) alluded to some of the issues the commissioners would be facing in the 2013-14 budget.
Clack brought those debt service-related issues into clearer focus at last month’s session.
Clack has said any tax base increases would likely go toward the new school debt for Roseboro Elementary School, which will cost about $700,000, raising the total debt over $11 million in 2013-14. Last year, a penny represented about $389,000, so the new debt will mean nearly 2 cents on the tax rate.
There is more than $22 million in fund balance and another $800,000 in contingency funds — the county has never had more than $350,000 — that could assist in debt service for the next year, but not after that, Clack said. And with the budget strapped, an increase in spending likely would not go beyond the required new debt.
Kirby said now, more than ever, the true needs had to be gauged, and earlier involvement and understanding by the board was key in decision-making.
“If you could give us some feedback as to what departments are talking about,” Kirby said. “I imagine the give and take will be that the departments will come and let the county manager know what they want, what they need and what their desires are — and (Causey) has to talk them down. If we can get an idea early on of what the true needs are…”
“If we can take the inflation out of it,” added Commissioner Jefferson Strickland, “what do you really have to have?”
The proposed recommended budget that commissioner have historically received is “whittled down considerably” from first drafts that include everything, assistant county manager Susan Holder said. Those budgets are often axed considerably during departmental meetings before the board even sees the fiscal plan.
Board members said they believed the budget process could move in a more expeditious, but still responsible, manner.
“The quicker we move, the better,” Strickland said. “I’m not talking about taking shortcuts, but (be) diligent.”
Holder said that county staff would be relying on commissioners to tell them what, if any, additional information they wanted to see. Causey said commissioners could be kept abreast of meetings, developments and requests as they took place.
Causey cautioned that budget submissions could be updated fairly frequently as the process goes along. The county may also have to modify its plan somewhat depending on what happens in the N.C. Legislature and trickles down to local government. Much of the effect of the state budget would likely not be known until about the beginning of May, he said.
Preliminary reviews and departmental meetings would occur before that time.
“We certainly want to give you as much information as you want when we start that process,” Causey told commissioners. He noted that it could also be arranged for commissioners to sit in on departmental meetings as they wanted. “If you give us as much feedback as you want to, I think we can come up with something that works for everybody.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.