With the first budget session behind them, the Sampson Board of Commissioners already has tough decisions to mull and has implored the importance of teamwork and common sense in pondering future impacts to the county, going so far as to solicit assistance from department heads in cutting waste.
“In our deliberations for approving the budget, one of the things this board did very responsibly in light of the challenges we have, is to devote basically an entire year to budget questions in trying to look at tough budget issues and give time, to give thought and give pause to those things we want to incorporate or change during the year,” county manager Ed Causey said.
The board agreed earlier this year to meet each month to discuss pre-determined topics that drive the budget, setting aside two hours to consider topics that affect county operations and budget. At the first budget workshop, held Sept. 17, the board looked at local school roofing needs and the Sampson County Recreation Department.
At next month’s session, set for Oct. 15, the board is expected to talk about courthouse security, as well as employee pay plan, classification, benefits and efficiency studies.
“We’re scheduled to have one of these budget sessions once a month, from now until next May,” Causey said.
Budget workshops on the third Tuesday of each month from 4-6 p.m. Future sessions are set for Oct. 15, Nov. 19, Dec. 17, Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 18, April 15 and May 20. With budget deliberations in recent years providing lengthy, weighty discussions on issues countywide, board members have heeded the possibility of making planning a year-round process.
While county planning sessions have taken place in the last few years, the monthly budget sessions in addition to the regular board meetings are completely new. Causey, echoing the words of commissioner Jefferson Strickland, said budget planning should be a 365-day task,
“Fiscal year 2013-14 will be the year that the (board) will need to adopt this same mandate and spend extensive time examining the relevant issues and making substantive decisions,” Causey stated. “Without this process, a significant increase in the property tax rate can be expected in subsequent years.”
There are plenty of obstacles to overcome, to include construction debt service and rising insurance costs, coupled with departmental and employee needs moving forward. All require tough decisions to be made, county officials said, further highlighting the benefits of the monthly budget sessions.
For the first meeting last week, all department heads were invited to sit in to see how the process would work over subsequent months.
“We thought it would be a good idea to invite our department heads to sit in and observe what we’re doing just to have some understanding that we’re not really singling anybody out,” Causey said.
Commissioner Albert Kirby, repeating words he used during deliberations in spreading around needed budget cuts, said “we wanted everyone to share the pain.”
“To that end, this series of work sessions is basically a continuation of the board’s need and desire to see if we can make cuts to at least try to avoid a tax increase,” Kirby said.
Strickland noted he had been through seven years of budgets, being the second-longest tenured board member behind Jarvis McLamb. He said it was important that commissioners have certain goals in mind throughout the budget process.
“We all should have certain things we want to accomplish and we must realize that the county must live within its means,” Strickland said. “We should not spend more money than what we take in. If we want to increase the services, we need to find ways to increase the revenue. We have to work toward those things to deliver the kind of services we want to deliver.”
Strickland implored the use of common sense.
“As we begin our discussions, not just (in September) but throughout, that each item we discuss or accept must pass the common sense test,” he remarked. “We should look at best practices throughout the state — if in doubt, we should look about, to see what others are doing.”
“I appreciate the department heads coming out and showing an interest,” said board chairman Billy Lockamy. “We’re probably going to go through each department; that is what we anticipate. This is what we’re going to do.”
He called on those department heads to assist the county, and its board, in any way possible. He noted Sampson’s higher debt load and tax rate as compared to surrounding counties, things the county will have to contend with going forward.
“Any wasteful spending you have, that you know of and you can cut out, help us all you can to keep these other services afloat,” Lockamy said to county department heads in closing the first budget session. “I wish you would volunteer to say ‘I can do without this’ or ‘I can cut that,’ because if not, there are going to be some departments scaled down, cut out or taxes raised. We’re doing all we can and I want you to help us out all you can.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.