Sampson commissioners will not meet again to discuss budget for another two weeks, by which time an interim plan will be on its last legs and two very different budget alternatives — the most recent being a proposed 5 percent across-the-board cut — will still be looming over the county.
The proposed 2014-15 budget currently calls for a 5.25-cent tax hike (whittled down from an initial 9 cents), however all departments were directed by the board last month to formulate budgets that axed 5 percent off their respective budgets for further board review during the interim budget period.
That 5 percent proposed cut came under fire during the public comment portion of Monday’s Board of Commissioners monthly meeting. Prior to that, County manager Ed Causey updated the board as to the progress of its assigned 5 percent slash.
Starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, county managerial staff was to meet with every department to pour over those cuts, a process anticipated to extend throughout the entire day Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We are trying to take what the board has asked very seriously,” Causey said. “We want to be able to show, very straight-forwardly, the positive and negative impacts. We have spent many hours on this and had many discussions, and we are making a diligent effort to put this together.”
That 5 percent, as per the board’s wishes, would include “real-time cuts” that, once made, can be carried over to subsequent years, the county manager noted.
“It’s caused a lot of questions and we think, with the efforts the department heads are making, we would like for them to come in and make these presentations. I have shared with everybody that it is my expectation — we have been tasked with this — it may be approved. We want to make sure everybody understands what the impacts are so we can be ready to implement them,” the county manager said.
He said staff and department heads could be ready to meet by the end of this week. However, with Commissioner Harry Parker on vacation (he was not at Monday’s meeting) and Commissioner Billy Lockamy expected to leave for vacation next week, the board will not be able to meet for another couple weeks.
“We are running out of days to consider (budget),” Chairman Jefferson Strickland said.
The board ultimately set 9 a.m. Wednesday, July 23, as its next budget workshop.
“I will share with the board, when we get to the 23rd, we’re getting to the end of the month … so you may want to continue meeting the next day and right on (until a budget is approved),” Causey stated.
such a blow’
The county manager said he envisioned county department heads, as well as school officials, speaking to the full impacts of the proposed 5 percent ax during that time. That July 23 meeting, and any subsequent budget gathering, will likely be busting at the seams as far as attendance, and Causey said a couple other invitations should go out as well.
“In recognizing that these discussions may have impacts that continue well after December, we would encourage our Board of Commissioners to encourage all of the candidates running for county commissioner to come in and sit with us on a session,” he said.
Strickland said he knew that budget “fatigue” was setting in with all parties, and asked that the board consider another option — a 4.5 cent tax increase, which would mean eliminating another $300,000 from the current proposed budget.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this has been a difficult process for the commissioners, staff, citizens and employees,” said Strickland. “There is a fatigue factor that sets in, no matter what it is you do, over a period of time. I know in some cases in the county, that fatigue factor is here. Perhaps the nerves are getting short and frayed in some areas … but we’re working toward some solutions.”
He specifically addressed commissioners.
“If we would consider lowering the adjustments by $300,000 more, that would make the proposed tax rate (hike) 4.5 cents. It’s 5.25 now,” he noted, stating he did not know off-hand where those additional cuts could be made. “That would be a balance between zero and 9. As you mull this over, if you think this is a workable plan, then call the county manager.”
Strickland said he was not making a motion, but asking board members to “take it home” with them.
“I just want you to consider it,” the chairman continued. “Two of us are soon to be ex-members of the board (Jarvis McLamb is the other) and I felt like I wanted to do something we could live with. I appreciate the need for some cuts, but I feel like it needs to be planned and thought out, and not strike such a blow.”
Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles brought many of Sampson’s finest with her to Monday’s meeting.
“Our budget is going to be finalized in a few days and I asked my veterans to come out and show you who you’re looking at when you look at my budget and you look at that 5 percent cut,” asserted Knowles, who requested some two dozen veterans in attendance stand. “This is your 5 percent cut here. This is your veterans program here.”
The only place that can be cut that is not salaries and employees is the Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs, along with Knowles’ travel expenses to hospitals, veterans’ homes and her job training, she noted.
“That’s all the fluff in my budget, if you want to call it that,” she stressed. “It is really disheartening that we have had to come to this. I’d rather my veterans come to a meeting where we are celebrating them. Our country is here because of them. Yet, I had to ask them to come out so you could see what you’ll be cutting out.”
Knowles said she has been told no one was exempt from the potential 5 percent across-the-board cut and she is taking it seriously. She implored the board to take budget matters, and a needed tax increase, just as seriously.
“Mr. Jefferson, I felt your heart a while ago, but I want you to feel our heart,” Knowles said. “I don’t want to pay more taxes, but do I want to get our county on solid ground. I want you to go home and think about 7 cents, so that we can have a pay study and have our county back like it was.”
“We’ve worked on budget for one solid year and we’re no closer today than we were a year ago,” she said.
SFC Tex Howard (RET), president of the Sampson County Veterans Council, a Wounded Warrior and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, alluded to a portion earlier in the night’s agenda during which the board joined 70-plus other N.C. counties in adopting a resolution proclaiming Sampson as a Purple Heart County.
“We should carry our patriotism a little further, and not do anything that would cut your veterans. When you cut the veterans, you’re also cutting the ones who receive the Purple Heart and even the ones who are not here — those that died for the cause of this county, state and nation,” he said.
Col. Frederick Maxwell (RET), past president of the Sampson County Veterans Council, said he has watched as the local VFW and Veterans Council struggle with diminishing funds but increasing members and responsibilities.
“In those seven years, I’ve watched Mrs. Knowles several times wondering how she was going to make things happen for the Veterans Council,” said Maxwell.
He said Knowles and the veterans have frequently reached into their own pockets to provide for their fellow soldier, be it housing, food, transportation or otherwise. Cutting into what county funds they had to provide those services would adversely affect those who already give much of themselves, Maxwell noted.
“I know it’s extremely important for Mrs. Knowles to make those trips for her training, because it directly improves our situation,” Maxwell commented. “Even with the funding we get now, we still reach into our pockets to support those (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) programs. I beg of you, please don’t cut our budget.”
Plain View Fire Department Chief Ken Jackson, president of the Sampson County Fireman’s Association, talked of the cuts that would damage emergency response across the county.
Jackson said the county is in a “touchy situation” regarding fire volunteers. Plainview and others made a goal several years ago to have part-time staff, an expense which was absorbed in the existing budget in order to continue serving the community at a high level.
“This is done out of my budget,” Jackson said. “I didn’t ask for an increase in my taxes, I didn’t come ask you for any money and none of these other fire departments are either. Right now we have departments that cannot staff a truck adequately because we don’t have the volunteers we used to have. And these fire departments have used these budgets this year to try to add some part-time staff.
“If we get this 5 percent cut, some departments are not going to be able to do that,” he said.
While fire district tax dollars will offer support, if county dollars are diminished that will dig a sizable hole for some volunteer units.
“We are at a point where departments are going to have add to staff to be able to do the job we signed up for under contract with the county,” Jackson stated. “I ask that you consider that, because Emergency Services, as a whole, has made great strides. We’ve added ambulances, put people on the road and we have people who can get there now where we didn’t. We’re at a higher level than we’ve ever been and these cuts are going to put us going backwards.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.