Deadlocked votes by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners Monday night left absent commissioner John Blanton unable to act as the tiebreaker and stalled the 2012-13 budget, with the board ultimately voting to adopt an interim budget after no resolution could be reached on the proposed plan.
Blanton, currently a patient at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville, was listening in to the meeting via video conference. As soon as the technical kinks were worked out roughly 25 minutes into the meeting, commissioner Jefferson Strickland made a motion to amend the Sampson County Board of Commissioners Meetings Rules of Procedure and Conduct to allow “Section 2.11 Participation by Electronic Means.”
Strickland said the proposed amendment would state “that when a commissioner is unable to be present at a meeting because of sickness or other special circumstances the board may vote to allow that commissioner to participate and vote in an official meeting of the Sampson County Board of Commissioners by way of telephone or other electronic means.”
Strickland made the motion to amend, which chairman Billy Lockamy quickly seconded. Commissioner Albert Kirby expressed concerns about the legal ramifications of such a move, saying it is “perilous” to do it, with a chance the county opens itself to lawsuits that could cost a lot of money.
“The board can do what it wishes, but I believe that from a legal point of view you’re wading into some very serious legal waters with this,” said Kirby. “Are there other Boards of Commissioners that act in this way? Yes, there are. But are they out on shaky ground? Yeah, I think they are. It’s unsettled.”
County attorney Annette Chancy-Starling said that while the matter has not been tested in a court of law, she was reassured — by those at the Institute of Government and the New Hanover County attorney, whose board allows participation by electronic means — that amending procedures would allow the county to do the same. If there was a challenge to a specific vote, the board could reconvene at a later date and have the absent commissioner simply reaffirm the vote made via electronic means.
“That would make it a moot point of whether it was invalid initially or not,” said Chancy-Starling.
But Kirby and Commissioner Jarvis McLamb cast dissenting votes.
“At this point we are in a deadlock,” said Lockamy, to audible sighs and murmurs from a packed crowd.
Strickland spoke up.
“Our decision is based on our county attorney, who to her satisfaction, feels like we’re on solid enough ground to proceed with this matter in this way,” he said. “Mr. Blanton, this is his last chance to vote on a budget after the years he has given to Sampson County as a commissioner. And I feel that we owe it to Mr. Blanton and to what he’s done to Sampson County, and out of respect for Mr. Blanton and his integrity.”
Chancy-Starling said the board could also vote to allow Blanton to participate in discussion, but not vote.
“I am not against John voting, contrary to what anybody else may think,” said Kirby. “What I’m really concerned about is if somebody brought action against (the county). I’m not giving legal advice, obviously. That’s Annette’s position. I’m only making a point, since I happen to be an attorney and out there practicing in this area and having dealt with the Open Meetings Statute, representing a local board of education for 25 years, I kind of understand it. It could create a lawsuit that could be nasty and could be costly. The law is uncertain now, it could set the law straight, but it’s going to be at the expense of the taxpayers of Sampson County.”
Strickland echoed what Chancy-Starling said about a simple response to any challenged vote.
“Even at the worst case, the remedy is a simple matter of procedure,” said Strickland. “At the worst case.”
Strickland made a motion to amend rules and procedures to allow Blanton to participate, but not vote.
“We’ve got a commissioner here who’s been on (the board) 17, 18 years and not allowing him to vote, it’s downgrading,” said Lockamy. “Other commissioners have been on vacation. You (Kirby) were on vacation in Las Vegas and we were going to let you vote one time. We didn’t back up on that, and now we have a commissioner and we won’t let him vote.”
“Mr. Lockamy, you act like you’re blaming me,” Kirby said.
“You’ve got all the solutions and no answers,” Lockamy answered.
“The law is the law,” Kirby replied.
“The law is the law. I’ve got an attorney right over here for the county,” Lockamy shot back, referring to Chancy-Starling.
The statement was met with a boom of applause by many in the packed county auditorium, which hosted the largest attendance to any budget session this year. Strickland repeated his motion to amend the board’s policy to participate via electronic means but not vote, seconded by Lockamy. The vote was unanimous.
‘Stealing from the taxpayer’
McLamb then offered his proposal, throwing out his previous proposed cuts in favor of a reduction in the tax rate.
He noted that for the 2011-12 budget, county staff had to “do some guesswork plus a lot of figuring” in coming to the projection of 77 cents per $100 valuation as the revenue neutral tax rate. Later in the year, after all the dust cleared from the 2011 revaluation and the final figures came in, the actual revenue neutral rate was 75.5 cents, he noted.
By that time, the board had already voted to up the tax rate by 1.5 cents from the projected revenue neutral rate of 77 cents, to the current 78.5 cent tax rate.
“No one holds anyone to blame for the 1.5 cent error in the revenue neutral rate,” McLamb said. “But this year you are not thinking of giving it back to the taxpayer. I think you should lower the tax rate back to 77 cents. If you will do that, I will withdraw the cuts I proposed and you can make the decision on what to cut to get to a 77 tax rate. No fund balance can be used. If you are not in agreement to do this, in my opinion you’re stealing from the taxpayer and I definitely will not vote for the budget.”
Contrary to recent sessions that have seen budgetary action take a backseat to stalemated votes, McLamb said he felt the budget might receive a unanimous vote this year “if we could agree.” Lockamy said he didn’t share McLamb’s feelings on the tax rate.
“I think that the rate is not stealing from the taxpayer,” said Lockamy. “It was an estimated rate and I don’t think it was intentionally done. We’ve got debts coming on, repairs that we’ve got to make, a new school that’s coming along next year…”
“Now that you know (revenue neutral) is 75.5 cents, it should be given back to the taxpayers,” said McLamb. “In my opinion, if we differ from that it’s nothing but stealing from the taxpayers, and I will not vote for that.”
Strickland then made a motion, one to accept the proposed budget as presented by county manager Ed Causey, with a few exceptions.
He proposed the establishment of capital reserve maintenance accounts, for long-term facilities upkeep, at 75 percent of Causey’s recommended amount — a total of $370,000, which would encompass $150,000 for the county, $112,500 for Sampson County Schools, $56,250 for Clinton City Schools and $56,250 for Sampson Community College.
Strickland proposed a salary increase for employees along a tenure scale that would give a 1 percent hike for those with less than 5 years experience; 1.5 percent to those with less than 10; 2 percent to those with less than 15 years; and 2.5 percent to those with more than 15 years of service. That would cost the county $243,220, to be added to the base salary but not implemented until January 2013.
Additionally, Strickland proposed reducing Sampson County Sheriff’s Office replacement cars from 12 to 10; delaying, but not freezing, an administrative staff position, at a salary of $26,000, until January; nixing an Agri-Exposition Center storage and refrigeration project, totaling about $30,000; and repairing, rather than replacing, Animal Control transport boxes at a cost not to exceed $2,000.
Lockamy seconded the motion, but Kirby and McLamb dissented for that 2-2 vote.
McLamb then made his motion to reduce the tax rate to 77 cents, Kirby seconded. Lockamy and Strickland dissented. Strickland then brought up the interim budget option.
“You can’t just do nothing,” said Strickland. “That would not work. I make a motion that we operate under an interim budget — this budget you’re in now would just continue on — until such time as a resolution is reached.”
As part of the motion, Strickland said the board should meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 17, “to further discuss the interim budget with the hopes that Mr. Blanton will be here.”
Finance officer David Clack explained that interim budgets are not recommended to go longer than 30 days and immediately become invalid upon the regular budget’s adoption.
The interim budget takes last year’s (2011-12) budget and divides it by 12, with no capital outlay items purchased. Salaries and utility bills are paid, and necessary office supplies purchased as needed. Once a budget is adopted and the tax rate is set, the interim budget is dissolved and the adopted budget takes over.
The board unanimously approved adopting an interim budget and there was an hour recess Monday night while Clack prepared the interim budget ordinance, totaling $3,544,038. The board recessed to reconvene at its regular meeting Monday, July 2.
Blanton said nothing during the brief budget discussion until the board recessed the first time having agreed to adopt an interim budget. Lockamy asked if he had anything he wanted to say.
“I want to be on that board to represent myself,” said Blanton. “Nobody can represent me like I can represent myself.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.