Less than a month after commissioners gave the 2017-18 proposed budget a standing ovation, they went back and forth over school spending and had a heated debate over a $10,000 line item for special appropriations, ultimately splitting 3-2 in directing staff to craft a budget ordinance to be adopted next week.
The proposed 2017-18 plan raises local schools’ per pupil funding by 6 percent, factors in a cost of living adjustment and projects $1.5 million more in tax collections and sales tax revenue — all while cutting the property tax rate by half a cent, from 83 cents to 82.5 cents per $100 valuation. The recommended 2017-18 budget has a General Fund totaling $59,347,634, up slightly from the amended 2016-17 budget of $59,162,146.
The fiscal plan brought unanimous glowing praise and a standing ovation from the county’s five commissioners during a special budget session last month, however apprehensions about school funding and the special appropriations sticking point prompted some divisiveness at the tail end of an hour-plus session Monday.
Among the many proposals within the county budget, it includes an increase in per pupil funding by $72 per student, from $975 to $1,047, a 6.1 percent hike or $679,881 total for Clinton City Schools and Sampson County Schools. The state average is over $1,700. The city school system are also subsidized through a city supplemental tax.
Sampson has been hampered in recent years by lower allocations of state resources such as low wealth funding.
Commissioner Jerol Kivett commended staff with doing well in budgeting considering circumstances faced in recent years. He did share his concerns with the struggles of the schools, as did board chairman Clark Wooten and Commissioner Albert Kirby, specifically Sampson County Schools.
“If something doesn’t change in the next two or three years, you’re going to have to cut programs,” said Kirby. “They are living on their fund balance. This could be a possible crisis.”
“I agree with you,” Kivett said, noting the increasing amount of per pupil current expense allocated by the county in recent years, up by $2 million annually since 2010, he noted. “I am a product of Sampson County, as all of us are. My parents were products of Sampson County. We represent all of Sampson County. We want nothing but the best for our county. We are in a catch-22.”
Wooten concurred, saying “honest, real and open discussions” need to occur with the school systems concerning funding and spending.
“I think if we can understand where each one of us are, and the trials of each budget, I think we can get there,” said Wooten. “I think we can get there. The (county schools) simply have no fund balance. If we’d have taken this approach a few years ago, it may have been mitigated some.”
County manager Ed Causey stated in his budget message that discussions with school officials would be ongoing.
“We do not believe that we can maintain or achieve a beneficial level of funding for our most important resource — our children — unless both the county and the school systems do some effective and substantive long‐term planning,” Causey noted. “Realistically, it is unlikely that we will achieve the state average in the operational funding for all schools in the next 10 years.”
Kivett said he wants to see that the county takes care of its children.
“The main thing we need is to see that the children get the money, not the children who are working for the children,” he remarked. “I think we all agree with that.”
Finance officer David Clack said the $72 per pupil is the largest allocation bump since 4 cents of the tax rate was designated to the school systems more than a decade ago as part of a funding formula to pay the debt service on three brand new schools.
Wooten said the board needs to stay positive, and wait and see the impact that the $72 per student bump has for the next year. “I think we need to be cognizant of the situation,” said Wooten. “It’s a tightrope.”
“I think the challenge we have cannot be solved in a year,” Causey stated simply.
Kivett directed the conversation toward Sampson Community College, noting the “windfall” they received in the form of a $4.7 Connect NC bond monies, as well as another $1.2 million in a potential EDA grant.
“I just find it hard to explain to the taxpayers that we are going to give them another $250,000,” said Kivett, moving to remove that line item, which is for capital outlay expenses at the college. The $250,000 allocation was first proposed in the 2016-17 budget, to be an annual allocation for the next 10 years.
Kivett made a motion that the $250,000 be placed in an education capital reserve fund. Kirby alluded to the fact that the funds could be designated to the city and county school systems, or even back to SCC, if necessary.
“When one arm is doing very, very well and one is not, you have to help it,” Kirby stated.
“Amen,” Kivett added.
The vote to put the funds in a reserve fund was unanimous.
“This is a savings measure, not a cutting measure,” Wooten concluded.
Seemingly wrapping up the session, Commissioner Sue Lee mentioned the “minute point” of a $10,000 line item, which Causey said the board could designate for a specific cause at its first budget workshop.
“Given that we can’t contribute to every worthy organization in this county,” Lee said, “I would suggest that we just remove this appropriation. My heart broke last year in the main meeting when the Garland contigent wanted money for a playground and we couldn’t do that. It’s prohibitive that we do it for all the worthy organizations and I can’t see that $10,000 is going to cover a lot if we can’t help everybody.”
Lee made the motion to remove the appropriation. Kirby took issue with that.
He said he didn’t want to fuss about the issue, but said there really is only one organization that gets the special appropriations money, and that is the Sampson County History Museum, set to receive $50,000 for 2017-18. There are others deserving of county funds, Kirby attested.
He noted the Coharie Tribal Council and Sampson High School Alumni Association among those that regularly ask for funds. Lee said there “are just so many” organizations and such a small pot of money.
“I take exception to that,” Kirby said. “This is not the first time I’ve had this disagreement.”
Commissioner Harry Parker brought up some small organizations in southern Sampson, including in the Harrells area and others in his district, saying some depend on every dollar they can get.
“They are just asking for a little help,” Parker noted. “I want to be fair and impartial about all of this. If we do for one, it’s only right we do for another. I’m not saying take it away from the museum. I’m not advocating that, but I’m saying let’s look at these other important ones.”
“When our discretionary money goes in one place, that’s the thing that is unfair,” Kirby added, going so far as to say it was “spitting in the face” of others.
Lee said that was not the case at all.
“We can’t give to all worthy causes,” said Lee, noting she would gladly write personal checks to help the organizations Kirby mentioned. “But I can’t see taking tax money to do that for (an organization), even if it’s in my district. Someone else is going to want that money tomorrow. I think we’re opening ourselves up.”
The motion came 3-2 to remove the allocation and a second 3-2 vote to direct staff to prepare the budget ordinance in accordance with the recommended budget and as amended by the motions, including the SCC change and the change in special appropriations. Kirby and Parker were the dissenting votes.
The budget is poised for adoption at 6 p.m. next Monday, June 26.
To see the full proposed budget, visit sampsonnc.com or follow the direct link to the pdf, at https://tinyurl.com/md3yfre.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.