Budget time in Sampson County is annually fraught with its share of drama, divisiveness and delays — this year could be different, judging from the early tune commissioners were singing at Monday’s budget presentation.
County manager Ed Causey delivered his recommended 2015-16 plan to the Sampson Board of Commissioners, a plan that calls for no tax hike. The tax rate is proposed to stay at 83 cents per $100 valuation. Causey noted the positive impact of new industry, sales and property tax revenues and the county’s strong fiscal standing and significant savings realized through a recent bond refinancing.
All of those factors helped in balancing the budget and complement long-term plans for funding the physical and human infrastructure, he said.
“These increases along with responsible planning have reduced, but not eliminated, some of our budgetary pressures,” Causey stated to commissioners.
He outlined the highlights of the budget, which includes a proposed 6 percent increase in funding for the county and city school systems from $880 to $930 per student.
It also allocates $450,000 for roof replacement and repair at the Expo Center, previously approved by the board. In addition, the county is proposing to set aside $123,990 for replacement of the cooling tower in Kitchin Hall at Sampson Community College as well as $176,018 to replace the membrane roof on SCC’s North Building — tallying about $300,000.
Causey said that cost of $750,000 is significant, but is the amount he would like to see earmarked each year for future capital needs.
“Moving forward, it would be our goal to set aside at least $750,000 for capital reserves until a sufficient amount is accumulated to handle the major repairs for approximately $500 million in county‐maintained buildings,” Causey asserted. “This kind of financial planning will enhance our financial soundness and viability and also help us to be better prepared to meet unexpected future challenges.”
The Department of Social Services’ proposed budget requires $336,000 less in county money than the current year’s budget, primarily due to an increase in Medicaid reimbursement from 50 to 75 percent. The county manager noted its importance, considering that nearly 25 percent of the county’s population is eligible for those services.
Also in the recommended budget, the county proposes to replace 18 sheriff vehicles, two ambulances and one QRV (quick response vehicle). It will also shoulder half the cost of a Planning Department vehicle.
Causey said county staff is projecting an increase in sales tax revenue of $931,625 and a similar rise in property tax collections in the amount of $580,728, at a collection rate of 96.4 percent. That projected increase is due to the expected collection rate of motor vehicles and the work of the Tax Office staff, Causey pointed out.
“We have increases in property tax and sales tax (revenues) and we’re giving about half that money to the schools and used some for additional capital reserves,” Causey summed up.
The county is appropriating approximately $1.8 million to balance the budget, but anticipate that lapsed salaries and benefits will negate the need to spend much, if any, of that amount.
On the staffing side, the board previously approved several staff additions, notably for Social Services and Public Works. Causey is proposing to extend that to the Veterans Office and Elections Board, which currently share one full-time employee.
An additional full-time employee is being proposed that would allow each department to have an additional full-time employee in lieu of the current half-time employee.
“We are also proposing one additional full-time employee to work in the tax office in business listings,” said Causey. “We had previously discussed the need for one part-time employee, but we found that was not reasonable.”
Causey talked about the great strides made by the county over the past year, including the adoption of a four‐year implementation of a job classification, compensation and benefits program and the refinancing of a significant amount of debt.
“We are excited about the fact that we have achieved at least an A rating from two major bonding companies. These ratings were achieved without the purchase of insurance, and this is the first time in our history that we have obtained a rating without purchasing insurance,” the county manager attested. “These factors, along with the guidance and expectations set by our Board of Commissioners, have enabled us to propose a budget that does not include a recommended tax increase.”
The implementation of the pay plan will be done over four years at an estimated cost of $3.7 million, including roughly $1.1 million and matching fringes for the 2015-16 budget. The plan further calls for $1,193,391 in real permanent savings over the next four years, necessitating a reduction of $345,497 starting in the 2016-17 budget.
That work will begin in July, with the goal of having an outline for those savings by the end of 2015, Causey said.
“We continue to believe that Sampson County is poised for some positive things to develop on the economic front,” Causey said, praising commissioners, staff and county partners. “At present, we are working with five companies that have the potential of adding $320 million dollars to the tax base of Sampson County. These additions would represent a 7.6 percent increase in the tax base and potentially add $9 million of tax revenue over a 10 years after the grant back incentives.”
“We’re not standing on our laurels. Things can happen and the economy can change, but we do appear to be seeing a trend line that may work in our favor for some period of time.”
At the same time, he said, the county is very aware of the fact that Sampson County has one of the higher tax rates in southeastern North Carolina.
“We do caution that many of the positive factors from the current and upcoming fiscal year that have allowed us to develop a no‐tax increase budget may not be available in future budget cycles,” Causey stated. “Moving forward, it is important we continue to evaluate the long term implications of our decisions. This may not prevent the need for future tax increases, but it may ensure our ability to be continually prepared to respond to the needs of our entire population.”
Commissioners lauded Causey and staff for what they said looked like a solid plan, and all expressed optimism for what lies ahead in budget deliberations and beyond.
Budget deliberations have extended into July under an interim budget the past three years. Initial comments suggested that would not be the case this time around.
“Just initially, and we haven’t gotten into it deeply, I want to commend you on your diligence and hard work in this situation,” Commissioner Albert Kirby said to Causey. “You and I have had it out, and you know that, but in looking in this … it really looks like you’ve done a good job. On the surface, I have to compliment you on this.”
Causey credited staff, including Finance officer David Clack and Assistant county manager Susan Holder. He said he still expected intense discussions among the board, but noted the hard work of department heads, administrative staff and others in their individual budget preparations.
Commissioner Harry Parker said he was optimistic, in large part because of the optimism of Causey and administrative staff and the strides made in the county, to include the positive bond ratings.
“I am extremely pleased with the numbers I’ve heard so far,” Chairman Billy Lockamy said. “I know we’re going to look at it and discuss it more, but I’d like to thank our county manager and staff for working hard and diligently on this.”
Similarly, Commissioner Clark Wooten praised county staff and said, although the county board does still have to discuss the budget in more detail, the proposal in front of them was a great start.
“I’m very encouraged,” he said. “I couldn’t be any more pleased. I think Sampson County is just on the cusp of realizing a lot of people’s hard work. Some of it is timing and a fortuitous upward tick in the business cycle, but as Mr. Causey said earlier, they didn’t rest on their laurels knowing that was coming. They dug in. I just couldn’t be prouder of everyone that had a part in this.”
“And while we don’t have a budget,” Commissioner Sue Lee added, “we have an excellent beginning. I am extremely excited.”
The full proposed budget is now available on the Sampson County website, at www.sampsonnc.com, and a full paper copy will be maintained in the Office of the Clerk to the Board for public review during normal business hours. A public hearing on the budget is set for 6 p.m. Monday, June 15, at the County Auditorium. The board will meet for budget deliberations at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 10.