Last updated: July 29. 2014 4:09PM - 886 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentCommissioners shake hands and share pleasantries with county employees following Monday's special session, during which the 2014-15 budget, including a 4.5-cent tax hike, was adopted unanimously.
Chris Berendt/Sampson IndependentCommissioners shake hands and share pleasantries with county employees following Monday's special session, during which the 2014-15 budget, including a 4.5-cent tax hike, was adopted unanimously.
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The cloud of budget deliberations that loomed over the county has finally cleared with the adoption of a 2014-15 plan, but Sampson isn’t safe from the storm — not by a long shot, commissioners said.

Following yet another year of budget discussions where it seemed a full fiscal plan may never come, one with a 4.5-cent tax rate was approved by the Sampson Board of Commissioners in a unanimous vote in a matter of moments Monday night. It was a surprising move, as the board appeared to be at a standstill after the same budget ordinance was nixed in a 3-2 vote just last week

And while the county dodged the implementation of a second interim budget for August, taxpayers were not as lucky. The property tax increase will put the new rate at 83 cents per $100 valuation. As of the 2013-14 budget year, only seven NC counties were higher than 83 cents. Bertie, Edgecombe, Franklin, Hertford and Orange counties were all in range of 84-87.25 cents. Northampton was 92 cents and Scotland was $1.03. All per $100 valuation.

The total operating budget is approximately $102.2 million.

With a budget ordinance already waiting on the media table at the opening of Monday’s special-called meeting, Commissioner Albert Kirby was the first to take the floor, explaining the arduous task budget approval has posed. He said he saw the deep impacts of the potential 5 percent cut and knew it wasn’t the time for that.

“This is a tough year. It’s been tough on all of us having to deal with this budget situation. I’ve had a lot of conversations with the good Lord, the citizens of the county and of course with my mother. I saw the pain and I felt the pain that the department heads would endure with a 5 percent across-the-board cut. This county would suffer. I want to try to save money, but there comes a time where prudence has to prevail,” the commissioner said.

Kirby, against a tax hike since day one, made a motion to accept the previously prepared budget ordinance with a 4.5-cent tax increase, immediately seconded by Commissioner Billy Lockamy. Chairman Jefferson Strickland asked for a vote, met by five raised hands.

An initial budget recommendation containing a 9 cent hike was whittled down during workshops last month to 5.25 cents. At the end of June, Strickland informally proposed a 4.5 cent hike, explaining it as the midpoint between no tax increase and the county manager’s initial recommendation. That was voted down in subsequent meetings. However, a month later, that exact proposal — $300,000 in contingency funds are being used to bring it down from 5.25 to 4.5 cents — received the unanimous nod.

“Thank goodness this is over,” Lockamy said, to rousing applause from a packed room in the County Auditorium.

“I appreciate all the attentiveness and support you have showed,” he continued, crediting staff with “long hours” worked and everyone for their patience during the process. “I think now that we can put it behind us and move forward to another year, but a lot of work has got to be done. This county is not completely safe yet. We’re working toward it and we’re going to get there. With your support, the staff, the citizens and the employees, we’ll get there. I think this is the first step and we’re on the right track.”

Commissioner Jarvis McLamb echoed that appreciation of support, but alluded to the reality that would be coming with tax bills.

“I’m glad you seem to be with us,” he said, “because if you’re not, you got to find somewhere else to find some revenue. You’ll soon be getting tax notices I’m sure.”

Similar to Kirby, Commissioner Harry Parker said he prayed over the ordeal and said the board’s disagreement shouldn’t be mistaken for division.

“I know there were times during all our deliberations and bickering back and forth — a lot of things were misunderstood, and I didn’t understand some of it — that’s why we have five commissioners on the board. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye on everything, but it’s good that we can come together and get a working solution that Sampson County can be proud of and go with it,” said Parker.

“Sometimes it seems as if the men up here are at each other’s throats, but I can assure you there is a camaraderie,” Kirby added. “There is a difference of opinion from time to time, but there is a bond that is true and it is strong.”

Parker thanked employees, saying he felt their concerns.

“Now we have to ask ourselves as we move forward, are we doing enough to make this county prosperous and for everybody to be proud of. Are there things that we can do at our agencies to curtail a lot of this so this won’t come up again?” he stated, then offering them an impromptu pep talk. “Lift up your heads and be encouraged and know that you’re doing a job for Sampson County, a county you’re proud of.”

Kirby called the 5 percent across-the-board cut “a wake up call to us all,” but agreed that everyone needed to do what it took to help the budget situation.

“The thing that I hope this year’s deliberations have taught us is, perhaps at least in our spirit, that we embrace what John Kennedy espoused when he became president. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.’ Ask not what Sampson County can do for you, but ask what you can do for Sampson County. The time is coming now where in the years to come, unless there are some drastic revenue streams, the reality of looking at what 5 percent (cuts) look like may end up being a true reality. We may not have any other choice.”

Also at Monday’s short session, Kirby made a motion to explore business tax audits as a way of enhancing county revenue and ensuring all were taxed fairly.

“I know this is one that we’ve talked about before and, since the taxpayers are having to do their burden, I’d like to make a motion that the county manager examine the possible effects of the business tax audit — what could be the benefits, the negatives, the positives — explore it and give us a presentation next January,” Kirby asserted. “At least if we’re going that direction it will give the taxpayers the idea that we’re trying to make sure that the tax burden is fair on everybody.”

He said the January timeline would give ample opportunity for pros and cons of such audits to be detailed, while allowing for the new commissioners — Strickland and McLamb are leaving in December — to take their place on the board.

Parker seconded and the motion carried 4-1, with McLamb opposing.

“This has been a great learning experience for all of us,” Strickland attested of the budget process. “When you think 5 percent is not much, a little here, a little there, but it is.”

He owned up to what he felt were his own mistakes during the budget process, but said he hoped the board was made up of “better commissioners” as a result.

“With this budget ordinance approved, we are not home free. We’re not there. We’re going to have to work to put some back in some areas where we took away to make this balance. We put a rate increase out there that we hoped would be acceptable in order to get the budget passed. We cut to the quick, and in some areas there is going to be some pain,” the chairman remarked, noting lessons learned and pitfalls identified.

“These experiences that we’ve been through since early June, and even last year, it’s almost as if we’ve got red flags … and we know where the ditches are,” Strickland continued. “We as a board say to you and Sampson County thank you for tolerating what we all have been through for the last while. Thank you very much from the county to you.”

Strickland then invited those in attendance to talk to commissioners, to which a caravan of delighted department heads and county employees shook hands and shared laughs with board members.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.

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