Is he like the little boy who cried wolf? Or is he like the little boy who said the emperor was wearing no clothes?
You probably remember the tales from your childhood. The first is about a young boy who wanted attention. He would warn the townspeople about a wolf that was attacking the sheep. They would panic, go out to fight, and then find out there was no wolf. After several times, the townspeople ignored the little boy’s cries of “Wolf!” But one day there was a real wolf. The little boy cried wolf again, this time for real. But the townspeople ignored him. The wolf ended up eating the sheep and the little boy. (Looking back, some of those children’s stories were pretty scary. It probably couldn’t get written today.)
The other story is not so gruesome. The emperor wanted to wear the most beautiful royal garments. His tailor, knowing the vanity of the king, said he was making the king clothing that only the wisest and most intelligent could see. But he didn’t make the king any clothes. He only pretended to, and as he placed the imaginary robe on the king, he said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful robe you have ever seen?” The king, not wanting to appear less than brilliant, agrees. The story continues. His royal court and the townspeople go along, not wanting to rock the boat. It is only a little boy, as the emperor parades around town in his underwear, who has the nerve to say, “Hey, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.” (Wait a minute! A grown man parading in front of a little boy in his underwear! That story would never make it today, either.)
Back to my original questions. I thought about those old children’s stories as I read about the recent uproar about the proposed sharp rise in the county tax rate for Sampson County. County Manager Ed Causey’s dire predictions for the finances of the county, unless there is a dramatic increase in the county tax rate, was met with vocal opposition and led to some interesting theatrics during the budget meetings.
So the question is simply, is Ed Causey just crying wolf; or is he saying the emperor has no clothes, when no one else is willing to admit it? Are the dire predictions just a ploy to get another tax increase; or is Sampson County heading down the road to financial insolvency? First, let’s look at how we got into this position. Any budget involves two things, what you take in and what you pay out. In recent years, what the county takes in has not kept pace with what it has to pay out.
In the past few years, we have built three new high schools, plus a new elementary school. Clinton, Union, and Midway are modern high schools with all the conveniences. I attended programs at each of these high schools with Kiwanis and have been impressed by the facilities. I was also impressed while presenting Kiwanis Terrific Kids awards at the new Roseboro Elementary School. These schools are nice, and were needed. But they cost money, lots of it.
If you can remember the old Sampson county jail on Vance St., you know a new jail was desperately needed for years. The old jail was a law suit just waiting to happen, and probably would have been closed soon by the Federal government if a new one hadn’t been built. The new detention center was built a few years ago. While having no frills, it is modern and is what was needed. But it also cost money, lots of it. A new Social Services building and other facility improvements have added to the debt load of the county. All the new schools and facilities amount to over $10 million a year that the county pays in debt services just on facilities.
Then there is the ever expanding role of Social Services in our county. The costs of these programs have to be paid for by someone. The Federal and State, while requiring those services, are increasingly passing the cost down to the local level. And the county has no one else to pass the buck to. As the stigma of receiving government help lessens and the continued breakdown of the family increases, the need for, and budget of, Social Services increases, causing more impact on the county budget.
There are many other expenses included in the county budget, like education, care for the elderly, and other services. These services are, of course, important to the ones receiving them. But they cost money. Added additional costs, like county employee health insurance, which has gone up 50% the past couple of years, have also put a strain on the county’s budget.
Now for the income side of the budget. Sampson County does not have a large manufacturing base from which to draw large amounts of property tax income. And the county is not growing, population wise, at a high rate, especially when compared to other counties in our area. There isn’t the expanding tax base to help pay the additional tax revenue needed.
Balancing a budget is simple. You either have to increase your income, cut your spending, or both. (I didn’t say it was easy.) Here in Sampson County, we’re either going to have to raise property tax rates, and/or find other revenue sources, such as a sales tax increase or business audits. Or we are going to have to reduce or eliminate services and programs in order to reduce the budget. Probably we are going to have to do some of both. It won’t be a popular decision. And since politicians are elected by popular vote, it will be interesting to see how they ultimately handle it.
Sampson County is not the only government body dealing with difficult fiscal issues in its budget. There are many counties and municipalities across the county in far worse financial shape than ours. But are we going to wait until we get in the same condition before we really address the issue?
So, is county manager Ed Causey like the little boy crying wolf? Or is he telling the emperor he isn’t wearing any clothes? In reality, he’s just a public servant, who’s been around the block for a long time, delivering the county commissioners and the rest of us, a difficult message. The problem is that it’s a message that many are not ready to hear.