County budget approved

Commissioner Albert Kirby raises concerns with what he felt were inequities in funding during budget deliberations Thursday as board chairman Billy Lockamy listens. The budget was ultimately approved in a 4-1 vote with Kirby opposing.

The county budget was approved in short order at a Board of Commissioners special meeting, but still did not get a unanimous vote following concerns from one board member about perceived unfairness regarding funding for Hobbton High School.

The 2015-16 budget, adopted in a 4-1 vote, includes no tax increase from the current 83 cents per $100 valuation. It totals nearly $55.1 million for all general county operations, an increase over the roughly $52.6 million budget adopted for 2014-15.

In a discussion at the Thursday meeting leading up the budget’s adoption, Commissioner Albert Kirby said he felt Hobbton High School had been “mistreated” in terms of funding, and sought for fairness. The high school is the only one in the county that does not have a track, he attested. Kirby also mentioned the issue at a previous meeting.

“I’m going to make a motion that we vote to take money from this budget and build a track at Hobbton High School so it can be just like all the other schools in the county,” Kirby stated. Commissioner Harry Parker seconded the motion.

Commissioner Clark Wooten asked whether it would not be proper for the request to come from Sampson County Schools.

“Not that I’m against Hobbton having a track,” said Wooten, “it would just seem to me that the proper channel for that would be from the county school system.”

“I was elected from the people of that area, these are my constituents and this is tax money,” Kirby replied. “So to that extent, it is coming from me and my sense of what’s fair when I look at a budget and I look at where money is spent. I think that I have an obligation. How can we look at these kids down at Hobbton, when everyone else has a track? We can do one of two things: we can vote yes or we can vote no.”

Wooten clarified that he was a graduate of Hobbton High School but despite certain allegiances felt that the usual protocol needed to be followed for everybody and every school.

“That is in my district and it’s my family and I think it is a fine school,” said Wooten. “I’m going to vote against the motion for the fact that it should be the Board of Education (that makes the request). I don’t think it’s fair that there’s not that high-level nursing program that Hobbton has in every school. And then at Midway, we have a state-of-the-art shop and it’s the only one in the county. There’s inequity in all of it. I’m not voting against my constituents or my family, it’s just the fact that I think those things should come through the schools.”

Kirby, a Clinton High School graduate, said he felt there was a record of Hobbton being treated unfairly “across the years.”

“I don’t think we have been fair to that school,” he remarked.

Commissioner Sue Lee asked what the price tag would be for a new track. Kirby said he wasn’t sure, but estimated it would take “a couple hundred thousand to a half million dollars to get a good track in there.”

“I do know with our budget, to be fair, you could do it,” Kirby asserted. “And it would be fair.”

Chairman Billy Lockamy, another Hobbton High School grad who played on the school’s first-ever football team, said he shared the feelings of Wooten.

“I think it’s up to the Board of Education to bring this to us,” he said. “I’d love to see them have it, and some other programs too, but we have to be fair to the rest.”

The motion failed 3-2, with Kirby and Commissioner Harry Parker voting for funding to be set aside for the track in the 2015-16 budget. Lee, Wooten and Lockamy were opposed.

That done, Wooten made a motion to adopt the 2015-16 budget ordinance. The vote came 4-1, Kirby dissenting.

‘Easy part’ over

County manager Ed Causey lauded the administrative staff for its work on the budget, which amongst other things, includes a nearly 6 percent increase in funding for the county and city school systems from $880 to $930 per student along with starting the implementation of an employee pay plan.

The pay plan will be implemented 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.

The county is appropriating approximately $1.8 million to balance the budget, but staff anticipates that lapsed salaries and benefits will negate the need to spend much, if any, of that amount.

The budget allocates $450,000 for roof replacement and repair at the Agri-Expo Center. It also sets aside $123,990 for replacement of the cooling tower in Kitchin Hall at Sampson Community College and $176,018 to replace the membrane roof on SCC’s North Building — tallying about $300,000.

Causey said that total cost of $750,000 is significant, but is the amount he would like to see earmarked each year for future capital needs.

An increase in sales tax revenue of $931,625 is projected for 2015-16, as is a similar rise in property tax collections of $580,728, at a collection rate of 96.4 percent, due to the expected collection rate of motor vehicles and the work of the Tax Office staff.

Despite what county officials can chalk up as a victory — budget deliberations have gone well into July as board dissension has forced the county into operating under an interim budget the past three years — Causey said the hard work was just set to begin.

“As far as I’m concerned, the budget approval today is the easy part,” the county manager said. “Moving forward we have a monumental task we want take on on behalf of the board and the citizens of the county starting in July. I’m looking forward to the process just to see what we can accomplish.”

It will mean evaluating all departments and vetting potential cuts toward slashing $345,000-plus from county operations toward continuing the pay plan’s implementation. Causey said he already has “14 or 15 items” to be reviewed, all ideas from board members and others.

“We’re going to be looking at a wide range of things,” he explained. “I think what we’re going to have is a substantive process over the next couple years, looking not just at cost reductions but improving efficiencies and better ways of doing business. Sending people home is our last option but at the end of the day we’re not going to discount anything.”