A process filled with numerous work sessions, stalemates and ultimately an interim budget ended Tuesday morning with the return of Commissioner John Blanton and the adoption of the county’s official 2012-13 fiscal plan in a split vote.
The budget includes, among other items, the establishment of capital reserve facility maintenance accounts and raises for employees along a tenure scale, a pay bump that will be implemented in January 2013. The tax rate will stay at 78.5 cents per $100 valuation of taxable property.
An emotional Blanton addressed the audience with a heartfelt message, addressing his condition and his gratitude for being able to be back in Sampson County to serve on the board he’s been a part of for the last 17 years. He has been recuperating from health problems at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville, where he was expected to return after Tuesday’s meeting for at least the next week or two (see Thursday’s edition for full story on Blanton’s return).
Following his comments, Blanton made a motion.
“I move that we accept the manager’s budget ordinance as presented, with no taxes, with the following changes,” said Blanton.
Among the modifications, Blanton proposed the establishment of capital reserve maintenance accounts, for long-term facilities upkeep, at 75 percent of county manager Ed 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. A total of $500,000 was initially recommended.
He additionally proposed reducing Sampson County Sheriff’s Office replacement cars from 12 to 10, and delaying the hire of an administrative staff position, at a salary of $26,000, until January.
Blanton also proposed a salary increase for employees along a tenure scale, that would give a 1 percent hike for those with less than five 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 for the fiscal year, however Blanton proposed to implement the salary bump in January 2013, cutting the expense in half to $121,610 for 2012-13. Any savings would go into the commissioners’ contingency fund, he noted.
The motion mirrored one made by Commissioner Jefferson Strickland last month that produced a 2-2 deadlock vote that led to the approval of the interim budget when no resolution could be found. Blanton was not present at that meeting nor any of the meetings or work sessions leading up to the passage of the fiscal plan.
Lockamy quickly seconded Blanton’s motion, and asked for any discussion. Commissioners Jarvis McLamb and Albert Kirby expressed their concerns, echoing the issues they raised in previous meetings of the need to curb spending and lower taxes.
“I’ve been on this board for 14 years and my sole reason is to help look after the taxpayers as much as I can,” said McLamb. He said he called the Institute of Government in reference to his concerns regarding the revenue neutral rate, which he raised last month, making a motion to set the tax rate at 77 cents that resulted in another 2-2 deadlock.
In that meeting, McLamb said continuing the current tax rate of 78.5 cents would be “stealing from the taxpayer.” McLamb noted that for the 2011-12 budget, county staff had to “do some guesswork” 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, as part of the 2011-12 budget. Kirby and McLamb dissented then, as they did again Tuesday.
Causey has said the rate is merely a projection at a particular time and is constantly fluctuating.
“He said the revenue neutral rate should be corrected,” McLamb said, alluding to his conversation with an IOG representative. “This has been a main concern of mine in making some cuts to adjust to the revenue neutral tax rate, but it doesn’t seem that the board wants to see it corrected so that’s something we’ll have to live with.”
“To boast about not having a tax increase this year is not saying very much,” Kirby added. “Not after the taxpayers got hit with a 3 cent increase instead of a penny and a half last year. Last year we were told that the revenue neutral rate was 77 cents. The tax rate was set at 78.5 cents so the citizens are thinking they’re getting a 1.5 cent raise. They really got a 3 cent tax raise. It’s going to go up. It’s not prudent to spend out to the limit of the 78.5 cents and not cut down.”
‘Can’t have your
cake and eat it too’
Kirby noted there’s been a lot of debate, letters to the editor and discussion about the local budget process. He said he wanted to make sure his position was clear.
He began by mentioning nearly a dozen cities around the nation that are in financial trouble, and noted there are debates about how those towns and cities got into that predicament. Some people blame it on the government and lack of federal and state assistance, while others believe the problems are “their own making,” he said. Kirby said he tended to side with the latter contingent.
“It’s from not being financially prudent. It’s spending more and saving less, where we should be spending less and saving more,” Kirby said. “I’m troubled by the spending that is proposed in this budget, even amended by Commissioner Blanton. Spending in this budget is such that it is going to cause a tax increase next year. Next year, if you vote for this budget, we’re going to be sitting here having to raise taxes because Roseboro (Elementary debt) is coming online with $700,000 you have to make up. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Kirby said to believe that Sampson County could not find itself in the same condition as any of the other dozen towns he mentioned is “faulty thinking.”
Strickland said North Carolina is one of the few states with a League of Municipalities that helps to govern budgets and provides a safeguard to oversee the process, as does the Local Government Commission. He said that helps separate this state and protect its counties. Kirby said other towns finding themselves on the brink of bankruptcy had such commissions and that is not going to save Sampson County from going belly-up.
Strickland detailed some of the positives that have come out of the budget process, including the addition of full-time rescue squad members that would benefit the northern end of the county, as well as provide another unit in Clinton. Three rescue positions were added to Emergency Management as part of the budget to outfit Clinton with an additional squad. Six rescue squad positions were added during prior budget deliberations to assist Newton Grove and the surrounding area.
Also in the budget, the schools’ per student allotment would increase to $859 and there would be benefits to setting aside funds as part of the maintenance reserve accounts, Strickland said.
“The money was not just put in the wind,” he said. “It was used wisely and voted on by this board. I think this budget is well-prepared and I think we can sustain it as well. As we said last year, we need to start today in preparing for next year. You plan for a budget a year ahead so as not to reach these negative areas that you might fall into.”
Kirby said he was aware of the positives and was not against all spending, just wasteful spending.
“I’m against things that are going to create a tax increase when you can make some cutbacks and avoid it,” Kirby stressed. “I’m saying you vote for this (budget) this year, there’s going to be a tax increase next year.”
“Only if we have three hands up will there be a tax increase next year,” Strickland answered.
Lockamy said the budget essentially revolves around two items — the proposed employee salary adjustment and the capital maintenance reserve accounts.
“Those two items were really the whole budget if we summarize it,” the board chairman said. “The rest of it really fell in line. Those two items have been covered very well. We would have loved to have done better. The employees of Sampson County realize what we’re up against and they know what they’re up against. We’re going to do all we can for the citizens and employees of Sampson County and not put any tax burden on them anymore than we can help it.”
When new schools were being built, along with the new jail, Lockamy said county officials knew that taxes were going to go up a “tremendous amount.” There were large numbers thrown out as to how high the tax rate ceiling could rise, figures that the county has not reached due to good planning, he said.
“With good planning and good decision-making from our county manager and all our department heads, we’re going to survive,” Lockamy said.
“If we are so pure, why don’t we correct a mistake that has been made?” asked McLamb.
Blanton said the county has seen a tax increase “almost every year” in recent years, but has weathered the storm. Nothing was going to change that.
“Every year we have had to have a tax increase and we have not gone belly up, we have not sunk,” said Blanton. “We just have to understand that it’s time for us to accept responsibility. We’ve got the schools and other things. We’re going to have to promote the budget, increase (employee) pay and do what we got to do.”
Blanton, Lockamy and Strickland voted for the budget, McLamb and Kirby against, producing the same vote as the 2011-12 budget a year ago.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.