Recreation facing ax

In an effort to make needed budget cuts, Clark Wooten has proposed to eliminate the Sampson County Parks and Recreation Department. The suggestion came during a pre-budget work session Monday.

Commissioner Harry Parker, right, with Commissioner Albert Kirby, shared his opposition to a recommendation to eliminate county recreation services in the upcoming 2015-16 budget.

The county is facing a $3.5 million shortfall in 2015-16 should all departmental requests be approved, leaving tough decisions as to where the budget ax should fall — one commissioner said that ax should take out recreation entirely.

The proposal to eliminate the Sampson County Parks and Recreation Department, made by Commissioner Clark Wooten, was met with vehement opposition by Commissioner Harry Parker, who said he was “totally against” the suggestion. No action was taken or cuts made during the discussion, part of a pre-budget work session at the County Auditorium Monday.

“I’ve got a red pen and I’m ready to roll. It doesn’t bother me,” Wooten said leading up to the recreation discussion, which occurred at the end of the 90-minute session. “I think there’s some places we can (reduce expenditures) and I’m sure the other commissioners have somewhere they think we can get (reduce) too. I’ve got plenty of places in here I’d be willing to make a cut, but I’m not saying those are the only places. These were just my ideas and thoughts. I encourage everyone to think about it.”

Among other actions, Wooten proposed closing the county’s Transportation Program, which is set to receive $214,040 in taxpayer dollars in 2015-16, as well as reducing the Agri-Exposition Center’s requested $305,358 budget — down from $333,577 for the current year — by an additional $72,000. Wooten also recommended a $100,000 reduction to the library system’s requested $715,126 budget.

The commissioner saved the most devastating cut for last, saying he felt one particular department could be completely eliminated — recreation.

The department’s budget request totals $655,737 for 2015-16, of which $610,952 is supported by taxpayers.

“I said it from the word ‘go’ and I say it again: as far as I’m concerned, we can close the recreation department,” Wooten remarked. “That’s top on my list. That’s a feel of the people in District 1 and those are the people I represent, and I’m not going to leave here today without saying it. That’s $600,000 that I think can be spent better in other ways.”

Parker shared his opposition to the suggestion.

“I represent District 4 and I’m totally against that,” said Parker. “That’s one of the only recreation outlets we have combined with the different schools. Recreation is a very important issue for children and in my district I can’t go along with that. I have to speak my piece. That’s all we have down there — Roseboro, Harrells, Union, Salemburg, Mount Pleasant, Ivanhoe, Kerr Station, Delway — that’s all we have going for our kids and for the community.”

Rec officials said the department “is continuing to experience growth” in its athletic programs as well as heavy usage of parks and facilities.

“We are looking at different avenues to help with revenue and capital outlay items that we need without looking at an increase in the budget,” a statement from the department, submitted to commissioners along with all other departmental requests, read.

The department is “aggressively fostering relationships” with several local businesses, including Nissan of Clinton, Ford of Clinton and James Trading Co., as well as a few individuals to help with some extra financial expenses, rec officials said. Similar relationships have been built with organizations like Dixie Youth, U.S. Specialty Sports Association and the Southern Softball Association of America, all in an effort to bring more adult and youth athletic tournaments to the county’s parks.

“Our department is not seeking any capital outlay money or any extra dollars in the form of an increase in our budget,” the statement read. “We are confident that we can manage and efficiently work within the constraints of our existing budget and continue to deliver a recreation program to the residents of Sampson County that they have come to expect.”

Wooten asked whether Parker believed the recreation department was “world class.”

“It’s efficient for what we have,” Parker replied. “We’re not a Mercedes county. We don’t operate that way. Unlike your district, my district operates differently. We don’t have the self-support, the people who can go out and support this program like you do in your district. They depend on this recreation department for that. Some things you can’t skimp on. That’s one thing in my district, and surrounding towns and committees, that is an asset.”

Wooten said he respected Parker’s viewpoint, but noted that the self-support aspect was only a small part of it. District 1 residents did have an advantage though, Wooten conceded, in that they have options as to whether they stay in Sampson for recreation services or go to Harnett.

More and more choose the latter, where they have to pay more, Wooten attested.

“To me, that says a lot for the level of service we have,” he said.

He thanked Parker for saying what he did, and Parker said he respected Wooten’s viewpoints, but both remained firmly on either side of the issue.

“I don’t want to take anything away from your district and I don’t want to take anything away from your kids,” Wooten commented. “I learned here today this doesn’t operate exactly how I thought it does. I said my piece. I appreciate Commissioner Harry Parker speaking up and not leaving here without saying his piece. We have to come together. It can’t be my way and it can’t be Commissioner Parker’s way. We have to come together.”

The budget will be further discussed at the board’s May 4 meeting, at which time County manager Ed Causey is expected to inform commissioners when his proposed budget will be ready.