Board mulls 5 percent countywide cuts

By Chris Berendt

June 27, 2014

It’s the end of June, and the Sampson Board of Commissioners has tough decisions to make. After several budget meetings — some of which are standing-room only — and a fair share of heated exchanges and hyperbole, a consensus cannot be reached to adopt a budget by the June 30 deadline so an interim plan is put into effect, spilling deliberations into July.

If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because that is what has unfolded the last three years, including again on Thursday evening. Starting Tuesday, the county will operate under a 30-day interim budget upon unanimous action made by the county board.

Following a change of venue from the County Administration Building conference room to the much-larger County Auditorium Thursday evening, in order to accommodate more than 100 county employees, department heads and others, the board met for close to an hour and a half before adopting an interim budget.

The interim budget represents one-12th of the funds approved under the board’s current budget. No recurring item will be increased, no capital items purchased and no tax rate levied, which means tax bills and possible discounts for early payment are delayed. The temporary budget simply allows the county to operate for one month, and will go away once the full 2014-15 budget is adopted.

Leading up to that interim budget adoption, there was discussion of instituting a 5 percent across-the-board cut for each of the county’s 20-plus departments, upon a motion made by Commissioner Jarvis McLamb and seconded by Commissioner Albert Kirby. That motion was ultimately tabled, however county staff was directed to have all departments put together budgets that reflected that 5 percent cut for further consideration during the interim period.

“This will probably wake everybody up,” said McLamb. “I’m making a motion that we go back and make a 5 percent cut on all departments in the county.”

McLamb furter said that would be in addition to the cuts already made. Kirby seconded the motion.

An initially proposed 9-cent property tax hike has been whittled by about $1.2 million ($1.4 million with adjusted revenue projections) and now stands at 5.25 cents. The county budget totals approximately $97 million, with county taxpayer support making up about one-third of that amount, about $34 million.

Kirby said it is a “tough position” the board finds itself, knowing its employees deserve raises and citizens need services, but the money is not there. He mentioned the county manager Ed Causey’s concern about Sampson’s solvency for the future, which Kirby noted “hit me like a ton of bricks.”

“It seems to me that Sampson County is on the brink, where we can no longer kick the can down the road,” he remarked. “There have got to be permanent cuts and if there is not, and we do not get revenue, then any tax increase you’re talking about this year is not going to matter. Two or three years down the road you’re going to have to do it again.”

Kirby said the cuts that have alreadybeen made are “dangerous,” because they are operational and feel like cuts, but really are not.

“They have got to be permanent cuts. If not, we run the risk of taxing away into oblivion,” the commissioner remarked.

The current 5.25-cent hike now on the table would boost the rate from its current 78.5 cents to 83.75 cents per $100 valuation, but that was not adopted.

“I don’t know what 5 percent would do,” Kirby remarked. “Some departments are different than others. Some departments … it would be devastating, while others have a little bit bigger cushion.”

Chairman Jefferson Strickland said the 5 percent slash in addition to previous cuts would not be fair to those who have already seen their budgets axed under the 2014-15 proposal. Commissioner Billy Lockamy said some county departments “cannot stand” a 5 percent cut.

“I’d have to see some numbers before I could think about that,” Lockamy noted.

Strickland said a 5 percent cut in county budget dollars would mean nixing about $1.65 million based on a $33 million budget. “That sounds good,” the chairman said, “but I just don’t think it’s practical.”

Commissioner Harry Parker played to the crowd.

“As we move forward, I don’t think we should leave the employees out of this. They are our number one resource. Let’s not forget about our employees. No employees, no county government,” Parker asserted. “They deserve something out of this. Hopefully, we can get together and work this out, but they are to be involved in this move too.”

Sheriff Jimmy Thornton asked whether the 5 percent included salaries. Finance officer David Clack said all line items are in play when talking about sweeping cuts. Thornton explained that personnel could not be avoided as a result of such cuts.

“Anywhere from 70-75 percent of these budgets are salaries and benefits,” Thornton 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. Not speaking for any other department head, but I would certainly have to cut positions before I would cut salaries.”

“Just off the top of my head, I’m looking at (losing) eight positions,” the sheriff stated.

Strickland said cutting, be it personnel, equipment or funds needed to maintaining infrastructure, would only double up what is needed later. Kirby said the county would not be much better off with a tax hike because expenditures are out-running revenues.

“The only way to tackle the monster is to have permanent cuts,” Kirby noted.

“To live within what you think you’re going to bring in next year, yes, you should have permanent cuts,” Clack concurred.

Strickland said a 5 percent countywide cut on top of the previous cuts and adjusted revenues in the 2014-15 budget would essentially eliminate the need for any tax hike, but would also defer all those needed expenditures.

“Every department will suffer from this,” Strickland stated.

There is also debt to be considered, Lockamy said, with over $10 million paid in annual county funds toward debt service for school construction and the Detention Center.

“We did not implement enough (tax increase) when we built all these structures in the beginning and we’ve suffered ever since,” he pointed out. “The employees and morale have suffered, but we’ve got a debt load we’ve got to answer to. I don’t see how we are ever going to catch up with this debt load — it’s not going to go away.”

Thornton cheekily asked whether the debt service would be subject to the 5 percent across-the-board cut.

“You can’t cut what you owe,” Kirby replied.

“Thank you,” Thornton exclaimed. “You can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul either.”

After another short period of discussion, Causey saluted the board for thinking about the long-term solvency of the county but expressed concerns of a 5 percent cut.

“There will be some departments that in order for them to meet those cuts it’s going to have to be people,” Causey remarked.

Causey said a long-term strategy is needed, especially with no sizable state windfalls anticipated around the corner. If a 5 percent cut was the strategy, it would take more examination by those departments, the county manager said.

“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,” Causey stated. “You’re still going to get slammed in subsequent years unless we have a pretty good working model of how we’re going to deal with this. 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.”

The motion for the 5 percent cut was ultimately tabled.

“I think we’re making a wise decision by tabling it,” Lockamy commented. “We’ll look at it, but we’ve got a pay study in motion. You’ve heard the pay studies we’ve done (in the past) not doing anything, but trust me, when we get this pay study back, something is going to be done.”

The Board of Commissioners will next convene for its regular monthly meeting on Monday, July 7, at which point it is expected to set a meeting to talk budget.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.