A proposed $60 million fiscal plan for the next year of Sampson County operations was unveiled earlier this week, with an ambitious goal of saving $5 million for economic development efforts in quarter-million dollar annual increments, as well as a small bump in per pupil allocations for both local school systems.
During an abbreviated meeting of the Sampson County Board of Commissioners, County manager Ed Causey delivered an overview of the 2018-19 proposed budget, whose General Fund totals $60,155,547, up 1.4 percent from the adopted 2017-18 budget, which totaled $59,337,634. The amended General Fund currently stands at $60,314,046, slightly over the 2018-19 proposal.
While the county budgeted for upticks in tax collections and sales tax revenues to the tune of $1.5 million last year — prompting the property tax rate to drop a half-cent to the current 82.5 cents per $100 valuation — significant increases in revenues are not expected in the coming year. The tax rate is proposed to stay at 82.5 cents.
“We should point out that we received almost $5 million more in budget requests than we were able to recommend in the proposed budget,” Causey stated in his budget message.
In introducing the economic development reserve fund, the county manager noted that more than half of Sampson’s employment is linked to agriculture.
“Agriculture is the life‐blood of our economy. Agriculture has sustained us during difficult economic times. However, our agriculture economy has been threatened as of late. Our future depends on our support and protection of this heritage, but also on our ability to diversify our economy,” Causey stated.
Positive gains in economic development are needed in that regard. Sampson’s location and its available industrial sites put it in a great position, the county manager said, “but only if we proactively plan and prepare to capitalize on those opportunities.”
Along with available state and federal grants, significant cash reserves are needed, he implored.
To that end, he proposed an economic development reserve fund that would foster the development of new sites. Under the proposal, annual deposits of $250,000 would be made until a fund of at least $5 million has been established. He said $1.5 million previously designated for loan reserves could be repurposed to go toward that fund.
“This endeavor may not yield success in the short term,” he stated, “but is expected to facilitate long-term positives for our communities.”
The county has proposed to raise the per pupil allocations for Sampson County Schools and Clinton City Schools to $1,069, a 2 percent hike from the current $1,047, which was a 6 percent rise ($72 hike) from the 2016-17 amount. County schools had requested its per pupil allocation be raised to $1,200 for 2018-19, an increase in funding of $1.36 million, while city schools requested an increase of $100 to $1,147, a $308,000 rise in the total allocation.
Causey noted that, in 2016, a formula was proposed for funding school systems’ operational expenses that would up funding by 19.5 percent of general revenue increases. The $1,069 amount is slightly higher than that threshold.
“That money is probably less than what they would like to have,” Causey noted. “It is unfortunate that we do not have more new revenues available to fund additional operating expenses for both school systems. We are making a diligent effort to at least proportionately consider the needs of all our funding partners when available financial resources are less than requested.
“We appreciate the concerns and the needs that they’ve got,” he continued, “but if we’re going to maintain a proportional budget, we don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
City schools requested $388,630 in capital outlay funding, of which $303,633 is recommended for funding. County schools requested $1,759,296 for annual capital outlay, of which $831,867 is proposed for funding.
The financial position of Sampson County is sound, the general fund balance is healthy and money is being added to reserves to better ensure the county’s maintain its physical infrastructure, Causey said. The oft-discussed pay plan is in the final year of a four-year implementation, an arduous cost-cutting process he noted was not accompanied by a tax hike.
“Moreover, we believe that our human infrastructure is in the best shape it has been for many years.” Causey said.
The 2018‐19 projected budget, he said, represents “more of a normal year for anticipated county revenues, unless a strategy is implemented that proactively promotes business and industrial development.” He came back to the ambitious push to save money for economic development.
At a recent meeting, the county manager said a public comment was made that the county is more interested in economic development than the current needs of departments.
“We do not agree with this statement,” Causey attested. “We believe that a proactive interest in economic development grows the tax base and provides the revenue to meet the needs of our citizens through our many departments and funding partners. We recognize that the emphasis and funding of the economic reserve fund may not yield significant revenue returns in the short term. The next important step is to develop a sustained and long‐term commitment for the (fund).”
“The future will be bright if we seize the day and momentum to develop tangible strategies for ensuring economic growth,” the county manager concluded.
Commissioners — chairman Clark Wooten was not present at the meeting — said they were happy with what they heard.
“I think we need to be forward-thinking and trying to grow our county without money and developing our economic base, it’s not going to happen,” said Sue Lee, acting as chairwoman. “I’m excited about that.”
Commissioner Jerol Kivett said the economic development fund was “a great idea,” pointing out the tax revenues generated from the establishment of Enviva.
“The only other revenue generator is property taxes, and I don’t think there is a soul in here that wants to pay more property taxes,” Kivett remarked. “We have the largest county in the state and there is a big demand on a small population. Our tax rate is higher than any contiguous county.”
The recommended 2018-19 county budget also proposes:
• Increasing funding for Sampson Community College, including $17,299 for operating expenses and $205,000 for capital expenditures.
• No cost of living adjustment for employees. The county’s contribution for employees’ retirement fund and the contribution for law enforcement will both increase by .25 percent under the proposed budget.
• Replacing 15 sheriff’s vehicles, one remounted ambulance, one truck for a fire inspector, one quick response vehicle, two cars for Social Services and one truck for the recreation department.
• Utilizing $350,000 in county capital reserve funds to fund a new roof at the Public Works building, estimated to cost about $200,000, as well as roof repairs and elevator improvements at the courthouse at a cost of $150,000.
• Establishing the Transportation Department as a separate department, with a director position added. With the addition of Medical transportation, the department’s budget has ballooned to $1.5 million.
• Increasing the Human Resources budget by $60,000.
• An increase in the DSS budget of $285,395 for employment and operational costs. DSS has a current workforce of 150 established positions, but there are additional needs for social workers. While additional employees are not being recommended, county officials proposed flexibility to establish needed positions in Social Services or elsewhere.
• Increasing the Sheriff’s Office budget by $233,680 for employment and operational costs.
• Increasing the Detention Center budget by $72,334 for employment and operational costs.
• Increasing the EMS budget by $283,720. There is a projected increase in the cost for billing of $150,000, expected to return $350,000 in revenue.
• Increasing the Animal Shelter budget by approximately $60,000, which will cover the reclassification an existing position to a vet tech position, as well as increase medical supplies and provide additional funds for new dog pens.
• Appropriating nearly $1.9 million to balance the budget, but it is anticipated that lapsed salaries and benefits will negate the need to spend “a significant amount of this appropriation.”
The proposed budget is available for public inspection in the County Administration Building, 406 County Complex Road, Clinton, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The proposed budget may also be viewed online at sampsonnc.com and budget comments can be sent to [email protected]
A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, June 4, in the County Auditorium, 435 Rowan Road, Clinton.
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.