05/03/06 — Commission continues budget fight in Duplin

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Commission continues budget fight in Duplin

By Turner Walston
Published in News on May 3, 2006 1:49 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County commissioners will now have to look for more than just a county manager as they continue to work to meet the June 30 deadline for the county's 2006-07 budget.

They will need an assistant county manager, too.

Commissioners voted Monday to accept County Manager Fred Eldridge's resignation and make Assistant County Manager Judy Brown acting manager, effective Thursday.

But soon after that vote, Eldridge read Ms. Brown's letter of resignation. Ms. Brown, who will celebrate 27 years with the county in June, will step down June 20.

That creates some concerns for the commission, Eldridge said.

"With her leaving, this county is going to have serious struggles," he said.

A public hearing on the county budget had been planned for Monday, but commissioners decided April 21 to postpone the meeting indefinitely.

"They didn't feel comfortable with the budget that they had at that time," Ms. Brown said. "They wanted to do some more work on it."

Despite the postponement, residents came to Duplin Commons Monday afternoon to observe the budget work session that followed the board of commissioners meeting.

Ms. Brown told commissioners that June 30 is the deadline for adopting a budget, and that a public hearing must be held June 19 or 20.

The current budget uses $3.7 million of the county's fund balance.

Commissioner David Fussell said the county's income has increased 60 percent since 2000, while the consumer price index, or inflation, has increased 21.2 percent. He said the county's budget needs discipline and direction. In the past, Fussell has distributed a flyer listing 16 motions he has made that were defeated, that he said would have saved the county money.

"It's not that we don't have sufficient funds," Fussell said. "It's that we don't have our priorities."

Commissioner Reginald Wells asked Fussell for his solution.

"Cut out nonessential spending and invest the money in public safety, education and economic development," Fussell answered.

L.S. Guy proposed increasing the contribution to Duplin County Schools from $305,000 to $500,000. The vote was 5 to 1, with Fussell voting a qualified "no."

"They need two million," he said.

Commissioners then considered cutting the number of EMS stations in the county from eight to six. According to the budget prepared by Eldridge, that move would save the county about $416,000 in employee salaries.

Last fall, commissioners voted to add stations in Rose Hill and Kenansville to help cover the county's more than 800 square miles.

"That need, in six months, has not changed," said Craig Forlines, county fire marshal. Forlines told commissioners that the number of calls would not decrease if stations were pared down.

"What's going to change is our ability to respond, timely," Eldridge said.

Also being considered is changing the paramedic schedule from 24 hours on, 72 off to 24 on, 48 off. Given the county's flex overtime system, Forlines told commissioners that 57 percent of the county's paramedics have said they would seek work elsewhere if the schedule were changed.

Commissioners asked Forlines to explore the possibility of having six county-run stations, with two run by private companies, and then to report back in 60 days.

Commissioner L.S. Guy suggested the county begin non-emergency transports to raise revenue.

"That's what we ought to do, or we ought to get out of the business," he said.

To cover expenses for this year's budget, Arliss Albertson moved to raise taxes from 77 cents to 81 cents. "That's just to get to next year, to be quite frank about it," Albertson said.

The motion was defeated, with Albertson and Guy voting for the tax increase.

Wells moved the board ask Fussell to bring a list of non-essential items to the board.

"I refuse to do it," Fussell responded.

"Let us see these great ideas, because they may work for us," Wells said. "You're always talking about you can save us money. We're giving (you) an opportunity to do it."

The motion passed, with Fussell and Albertson voting against it. "David, the ball is in your court," chairman Zettie Williams said.

"It's not in my court," he responded, indicating he would not comply.

After a 15-minute recess, board members adjourned at 5:30 p.m. Monday until May 11 at 9 a.m., when they will hold another work session.