In a move that shocked the many county department heads and others in attendance for what was supposed to be an all-day affair Wednesday, the Board of Commissioners approved a 4.5-cent tax hike before hearing one word from employees.
After little more than a half hour, the board recessed its meeting following the 3-2 approval of the tax increase to reconvene Wednesday night, at which point a 2014-15 budget ordinance was expected to be formally adopted.
The meeting began as normal, with county manager Ed Causey giving a synopsis of the budget-crunching done by county managerial staff and department heads in making the 5 percent countywide cuts (see related story below). That across-the-board directive was made by commissioners last month, with a 5.25-cent tax hike on the table and an interim budget adopted for July.
As the board appeared poised to begin the scheduled 11-hour session, Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland, in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort, brought back his idea for a 4.5-cent tax hike, which he noted was the midpoint between a zero tax hike and the 9 cents initially recommended by Causey.
“I would like to offer in the form of a motion that we accept a 4.5 (cent hike) at this point. I make a motion that we adjust the 5.25 to 4.5, halfway between 0 and 9,” the chairman asserted. “I thought about it and this can be accomplished a couple ways, but wanted to see if there was any interest in pursuing this.”
Strickland broached the possibility of a 4.5-cent tax hike at the board’s last budget workshop on June 26 as an idea commissioners could mull over and express any interest they had in it with Causey.
“I understand no one has called the county manager with any interest, but I feel like it just needed to be brought up again (so) that we can prevent going through this today,” the chairman said.
Commissioner Billy Lockamy seconded the motion.
Lockamy said cuts should be made, but echoed the need to see an ongoing pay study through before making rash decisions during “tough times” that would affect county operations and personnel. He again pointed to the county’s massive debt service, the tax hike for which was never fully implemented.
“We built too much too fast and we did not see the economical times coming, but they came. There’s no way we can sit here and keep on cutting. We could send 75 employees home (with a 5 percent cut) the way I’m calculating it now,” Lockamy commented. “If we send that many employees home, devastation is going to hit. I think we need to walk very slowly in this and do it very carefully. I think it needs to be well thought out and studied instead of making drastic decisions at this time.”
“Time is running out and we have to make a decision,” Strickland added. “I propose this as an acceptable solution to our situation.”
Strickland asked for all those in favor, to which he, Lockamy and Commissioner Jarvis McLamb, all Republicans, raised their hands. Commissioners Albert Kirby and Harry Parker, both Democrats, cast dissenting votes.
A crowd expecting a round-the-clock caravan of county department sat silently stunned at what unfolded.
It was McLamb who made the motion at the June 26 workshop for a 5 percent across-the-board cut for each of the county’s 20-plus departments, along with partners. While the motion was ultimately tabled, county staff was directed to have all departments put together budgets reflecting the cut for further board review during the interim period.
Those modified budgets were no longer needed after McLamb’s perceived change of heart. Kirby, who had seconded McLamb’s motion for a 5 percent cut nearly a month ago, said he could not vote for a tax hike.
“I just voted against a tax increase because I think it’s wrong,” Kirby said. “It’s wrong because it’s not going to answer the problem that we have. Mr. Causey mentioned insolvency and those words rang very heavy upon me. This 4 cents doesn’t cure anything. If we would have raised it 9 cents it wouldn’t have mattered. With the way the debt service is structured, the only way we’re going to get from behind the problem that we’re facing is permanent cuts.”
Kirby said the county’s financial footing is only compromised further when the board does not address the “true issue.”
“You just kicked the can down the road,” Kirby said. “We are too big now and we’re spending too much money, and we’re going to compromise the tax base in a way that it’s going to hurt the county. I understand that perhaps a 5 percent would have been difficult, but the county departments have to look at things a different way. We just don’t have that many resources coming in to cover (expenses).”
“I just hope that we didn’t make a big mistake,” he continued. “You can’t keep raising the taxes of the citizens without looking at what you spend.”
“No one disagrees with you,” Strickland said. “It’s been our intention that it needs to be planned and thought out.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, you don’t plan and think about not walking out in front of a moving train. You don’t have to plan and think about that. You just don’t do it,” Kirby expounded. “You just voted for a 4 cents tax increase. It’s double-talk like ‘we’re going to take care of this, but in the meantime I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.’ It’s schizophrenic. That’s the easy way out. You’re going to keep on doing this every year until you get the resolve to say ‘I’m not going to do it’ and find a way not to do it. Don’t come up with a thousand reasons why to put it off like the world’s going to come to an end.”
Kirby said the buildings cannot be unbuilt, but the board can look at the way county government is run and “cut back fundamentally.” He took to task what he called “Mr. Lockamy’s logic” of upping taxes to pay for buildings.
“I gave you my honest opinion and you’re trying to run me down and build yourself up,” Lockamy interjected. “I’m tired of hearing it now.”
“I’m simply saying that logic is defective in this respect: if you can live with having a tax rate with $1.50 or $2, then what you’re saying may be correct,” Kirby replied. “I can’t live with raising taxes of the citizens of Sampson County. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not running you down. I’m not here to build me up. It doesn’t matter to me one way or another. I’m trying to do what I think is best for Sampson County.”
“I am too,” Lockamy shot back.
“Well we have an honest disagreement,” Kirby stated. “Anyone who would have the idea that raising taxes is the answer to our problem — as opposed to making cuts — I would disagree with them humbly.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.