Confusion, disarray and division among county commissioners came to an embarrassing head Wednesday night in a debacle that left employees thoroughly perplexed and exasperated and board members speechless, only to approve a historically dubious second interim budget.
That second interim budget, adopted unanimously by the Sampson Board of Commissioners, will take effect at the beginning of August, with July’s interim budget in effect until Thursday, the last day of the month.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is as late into July we’ve gone without a budget,” Assistant county manager Susan Holder said Thursday, noting last year’s late budget adoption on July 22. “I don’t recall ever having two interim budgets. To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve ever had that.”
Following a chain of events that had those in attendance scratching their heads — both at a Wednesday morning meeting, then at the supposed formality of adopting a budget ordinance that evening — the board recessed to reconvene Monday, July 28, at 6 p.m. in the County Auditorium.
Wednesday morning’s shock of an approved 4.5-cent tax hike — in the process rendering moot an all-day scheduled workshop to consider a 5 percent across-the-board cut — was trumped a mere eight hours later when perceived progress toward adoption of a full 2014-15 budget including that tax increase unraveled.
Strickland opened the Wednesday evening meeting with a thank you to all those in attendance “for being here to see this moment happen tonight that we are anticipating.”
While it was not the anticipated moment expected, it turned out to be an unforgettable one nonetheless.
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb, who voted with Republican colleagues Jefferson Strickland and Billy Lockamy for the tax hike in the morning, voted against the budget ordinance when the meeting opened and the vote was called. However, Harry Parker, who voted against the tax hike that morning, raised his hand in favor of the budget ordinance.
After several moments passed, Parker said he didn’t understand what he voted for previously and made a motion to reconsider the budget ordinance adoption. The motion to reconsider passed 3-2, with Parker, McLamb and Albert Kirby voting for it.
“We’ve sat here and listened to everything, asked questions, I think we need to be prepared to vote — Commissioner Parker, why didn’t you ask questions?” Lockamy inquired, to which Parker offered a cryptic reply.
“Like anything else, understanding is the best thing in the world,” Parker remarked. “The vote that went through this morning, I voted another way. Today, I don’t feel I made the right decision at that time with all the conversation that was going on up here.”
“I didn’t understand this morning either,” McLamb chimed in. “I am disappointed in myself and this whole board. I think we could have done a lot better than this. I am disappointed in all of us.”
Lockamy echoed that.
“I’m not proud of what we’re sitting up here doing, I can tell you that,” he stated, “but everybody’s got their own opinion.”
Strickland said commissioners had the proposed budget for close to two months.
“You were asked — we were asked — to study and come and make your proposed suggestions, reductions, cuts, adjustments, whatever you want to call it,” the chairman said. “Each of us need to ask ourselves, what part did we play, what did we bring to the table, what did we do about the task we were asked to do? There was nothing to keep anyone from making these suggestions. Are you aware of what the consequences are of not proceeding?”
Strickland asked Tax administrator Jim Johnson to address those consequences on the tax collection side. Annual tax settlement and necessary collections cannot be accomplished without an adopted tax rate for the coming year. The longer it takes to approve a budget, the less time available for early-payment discounts.
“The discount is only the month of August, that cannot be adjusted,” he asserted. “It’s typically about a two-week process once we get the tax rate. Best-case scenario now, we’re looking probably end of the first week of August. We try to have them in the mailboxes by Aug. 1 so taxpayers have the full 30 days to pay the bills with the discount figure. I don’t think that will happen this year.”
Johnson said he was unsure as to the percentage of taxes that was collected on average last year during the discount period, but noted last year that approximately $300,000 was “written off” as part of the 2 percent discount — the amount saved by taxpayers.
“Has everybody understood what he has just said?” Strickland asked, his voice amplified. “You’re playing with the taxpayers’ ability to get a discount by paying early.”
When the motion to adopt the budget ordinance ultimately came, it failed 3-2, with Kirby, Parker and McLamb opposing. Strickland and Lockamy chided board members and expressed their own displeasure with the derailed budget process.
“Any of you have a list of things you want to talk about as far as adjustments you want to propose?” Strickland asked, met by silence.
“We went through 12 months and nobody said nothing,” Lockamy added. “Nobody made any cuts at all. Then some of them said ‘let’s take 5 percent across the board’ and that didn’t work. I’m ashamed fellas.”
“I’m waiting for somebody to come up with some solutions myself,” Lockamy said later. “I’ve not heard any other commissioner say anything at all about how they are going to solve the problem.”
McLamb maintained that he mentioned “several things in the last 30 days” that could be cut. However, Strickland made the only approved motions for budget cuts during workshops in June. McLamb’s motions, aside from the 5 percent across-the-board cut, were limited to requesting a conversion of the make of sheriff’s vehicles, however the motion was withdrawn and data supporting the claim of potential savings was never produced.
“All these years I’ve been a commissioner, I have brought things forward to cut. And as of right now, the board has not cut the first thing,” McLamb stated.
The board at an impasse, County manager Ed Causey asked for a 5-minute recess to talk with Finance officer David Clack and Holder.
Following the short break, Causey cut to the chase.
“We’re at the end of July and we need to move forward,” the county manager remarked. “The problem that we have in this county right now ultimately stems from the fact that we never put the full tax increase in place to support the debt for the schools. It is an albatross around the county’s neck.”
County staff then presented a summation of the 5 percent across-the-board cut, which showed that despite numerous cuts, the net effect of losing manpower would be losing associated revenue. The memo was not handed out during the morning session so as not to “take away from the impact the departments were producing,” Causey explained.
“At the end of the day, if you do the full break on the 5 percent across-the-board cut, we were going to lose 75 employees and you were going to save $758,817,” Causey said. “If you took the 5.25 cents you started with, you could take roughly 2 cents off that for a 3.25 cent tax rate and you would be sending 75 employees home. That doesn’t solve the problem.”
“I’m not advocating raising taxes or lowering taxes, but in order to get it down where you don’t have a tax increase, your cuts are going to have to be deep and hard,” the county manager implored. “Can we cut deep and wide? Yes, we can start. But the 75 employees you are going to send home is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to take more than just tax cuts. Even if you get the budget down to zero this year, the pressure is still going to be there.”
Causey said the county would have to have a dual approach, saying reducing expenditures alone would not get the job done. Increased revenue was needed, be it industry recruitment, sales tax or property tax hikes.
“If we stay on the same path for the next five years that we’ve been on for the last three years, we are going to have some dire consequences. We have to be careful what we do,” he said. “I don’t think the board, at this late date, has the capacity or the time to come back and fix everything.”
Strickland, saying he “just wanted to make sure everyone knew what they were doing,” asked for a third vote on the budget ordinance. In an encore performance, the ordinance failed again 3-2.
“I don’t know what direction we need to start at now,” Lockamy said. “If anybody’s got some solutions, I’m willing to listen. I’m waiting to hear that. I haven’t heard it yet.”
“I had hoped tonight that we could leave here on a positive note and take this instrument (5 percent cuts) and let this be your guide to go about well-thought out cuts,” Strickland added. “The consequences are grave what we’re doing. We can vote an interim budget tonight or wait until the last moment and see if anything happens in the next two or three days.”
The interim budget for August was unanimously adopted and the Monday session set. Should the board adopt a budget prior to Friday, the second interim budget will not be necessary.
As it is now, the current 2014-15 budget proposal calls for a 5.25-cent tax hike. However, county staff and employees, said they do not know where Monday’s session will even begin or what to expect out of it.
“I really don’t know at this point,” said one county official, when asked what was on the table. “I’m not sure any of us even knows where the table is.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.