Budget poised for approval

Commissioner Clark Wooten speaks during Wednesday’s work session as fellow commissioner Sue Lee listens.

Commissioners Albert Kirby, left, and Harry Parker peruse budget documents.

If Wednesday’s session is any indication, the county budget is scheduled for a timely adoption pending next week’s scheduled budget public hearing.

“Generally, if there was a lot of angst on a particular issue in the budget we would’ve heard some inkling of it,” County manager Ed Causey said during the short Board of Commissioners meeting. “Nothing has been expressed to me. From the comments I’ve heard, most people are appreciative of the fact we are proposing to do what we are without having a tax increase.”

That seemed to translate in the lack of discussion during Wednesday’s official start of budget deliberations, which have often extended for many hours over several nights every June. For the last three year, those talks have extended into July under an interim budget.

On Wednesday, there was little more than half-hour of budget-related talk following several other issues addressed by commissioners.

The bulk of the discussion on the budget focused on the pay plan, whose 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.

Causey said the actual implementation is a “monumental task,” as far as making individual calculations and adjustments for each of the county’s employees.

Following some discussion on the proposed pay plan, Chairman Billy Lockamy asked whether there were any more questions on the budget.

“Can we adopt it tonight?” Commissioner Clark Wooten queried.

Assistant county manager Susan Holder said there was a 10-day minimum requirement between introducing and adopting the budget. Plus, the county still has to hold a public hearing, she said. Commissioner Albert Kirby said there may be concerns brought up during the hearing that could prompt board members to make some budget adjustments, to which Wooten agreed.

Kirby did question county staff on the allocation of reserves to balance the budget.

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.

“My concern is with the fund balance,” Kirby said. “I know we’ve done it in the past, but getting almost $2 million out of fund balance — $1.8 million — is just worrisome. In essence, unless we get more money, you’re just delaying the problem. We’re going to be at the same point next year.”

Finance officer David Clack said $1.8 million has been appropriated “at least the last five years,” but through budget amendments, lapsed salaries and other circumstances, that money has not been spent.

“It’s going to get harder and harder to save $1.8 million as we go forward,” the finance officer added. “It is a legitimate concern, but we do feel like we can save enough in lapsed (salaries) to do that. And of course next year there is going to have to be a cut in expenditures to continue implementation of the pay study.”

Causey agreed it was a legitimate concern.

“We will be ever mindful and be prepared to start making recommendations to do something different as soon as we recognize that is a problem,” the county manager said.

Clack said those problems could reveal themselves sooner than later.

“I don’t think that’s going to be as easy (to save $1.8 million) going forward,” he noted.

Kirby said there were “a few other” issues of what he felt were cases where some departments were in better shape than others, and re-emphasized the need to “as best we can, share the burden” of any cuts across all departments.

“Mr. Causey, let me tell you once again I think you’ve done a very admirable job. I mean that,” Kirby said. “That’s just my concern, that some departments are getting more than others.”

Causey delivered his recommended 2015-16 plan to the Sampson Board of Commissioners last week, with a tax rate 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.

“We’re not standing on our laurels,” Causey has said. “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 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.”

Causey said county staff is projecting an increase in sales tax and property tax revenue to the tune of $1.5 million.

On Wednesday, Kirby asked Causey whether there was a hope that some of the economic upturn would remain intact, to the point there would be no tax increase considered next year either. Causey said he is cautiously optimistic, especially with recurring revenue in the form of economic development and the continual evaluation of all county operations.

To make necessary cuts toward pay plan implementation and budget balancing in the future, everything — all departments, programs and services — will be subject to discussion and evaluation, he said.

“If something comes up in discussion, we’re going to let it play out. Just because something comes up doesn’t mean people need to assume it’s going to come forward in a proposal,” said Causey, noting the recent issue of eliminating recreation. “There are going to be some things that create some discussion. This is going to be a busy three years.”

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.