05/12/06 — Duplin struggles with budget

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Duplin struggles with budget

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on May 12, 2006 1:53 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County Commissioners will try again Monday to come up with a budget that does not call for increasing the county's tax rate or dip too deeply into the county's reserves.

The commissioners met Thursday in a work session to discuss the 2006-2007 budget, which must be approved by the end of June.

The proposed budget calls for using $3.7 million from the county's fund balance.

Commissioners have considered a range of possible ways to trim the county budget without reducing services drastically, including lowering the Emergency Medical Services care level to intermediate rather than paramedic.

The commissioners had already discussed cutting the number of emergency management stations from eight to six.

The board defeated a motion by Commissioner Arliss Albertson earlier this month that would have increased property taxes from 77 cents on the $100 of property value to 81 cents.

Before he left, the former county manager, Fred Eldridge, presented commissioners with a balanced budget , but that spending plan included cutting the number of EMS sites back down to six and giving a $300,000 increase in funding to the public schools.

Since that time, commissioners have added two more deputies and two bailiffs to the Sheriff's Office and increased funding for the Register of Deeds Office. Commissioners also increased the public school budget from $300,000 to $500,000. Acting County Manager Judy Brown told commissioners they would have to cut $900,000 from the proposed budget or find the money to pay for those line items.

Commissioner L.S. Buy, a former school superintendent, said the governor's 8 percent teacher salary increase is going to affect the county-paid teachers, and that $500,000 will not be enough. He said now the schools are going to need an increase of up to $1 million to cover the cost.

The school system has 25 county-paid teachers, said Superintendent Wiley Doby, but he said the state raises will also affect support people like maintenance workers.

"It's quite a hit," Doby said. "We're very appreciative of that half-million dollars, but we'll probably have to cut other things to make it with that half-million."

Officials at James Sprunt Community College say they need more money for maintenance and utilities. Costs for electricity and phones have gone up, college officials said, and Sprunt has built a new 19,000-square foot building and added another 4,000 square feet to another. The college is asking commissioners for a $177,000 increase just to keep up with maintenance costs.

Brown told the board that the county has already used $1.4 million of the $2.7 million allocated from the fund balance for this year. That leaves $1.2 million left to use from fund balance for the rest of the fiscal year.

"We have two months to go, and I don't know if we'll see that increase or decrease," she said. She said county department managers are looking for ways to pay for unexpected expenses without having to dip any further into the fund balance. Several departments have gone over budget in overtime, such as the sheriff's office where increased drug activity has taxed resources and in communications because of unfilled positions.

"I met with the budget committee this week, and you might pick up $100 somewhere but it will affect another area by $100," she said."

The former county manager's proposed budget gave 90 percent of the departments less than they had to work with in the current fiscal year, said Commissioner Guy.

"The departments did a good job of coming forward with reduced budgets. Keep that in mind when you talk about cutting further," he said.

Commissioner Chairman Zettie Williams said she wants to take the Emergency Medical Services back to the Intermediate level of service and make the emergency medical technicians work longer shifts.

"We can make it work," she said. "We already spent $4.2 million knowing all along we'd gone into the fund balance. The state does not require paramedic level service."

Four positions in Emergency Medical Services are already on hold until the county commissioners decide whether to cut the number of sites back down to six rather than keeping the two new sites at Rose Hill and Kenansville. Two more EMTs have resigned this week, and county officials are expecting more to resign if the shifts are made longer.

Commissioner Larry Howard said the commissioners need to focus on necessary services.

"I came up with $2.7 million in things that are not state required. Nothing says we've got to have a museum or parks and recreation. You can get your money. Why jeopardize the safety of the people in Duplin County?" Howard asked.

He suggested taking the former county manager's advice to provide inter-hospital transfers and farm out economic development work to consultants.

The board is at an impasse, said Commissioner Reginald Wells. He said he sees only two options. The county can either find ways to reduce costs or raise taxes. And if they don't make any decision soon, they'll continue to "sit around here looking at each other."

Wells recommended privatizing the convention and visitors bureau at the Duplin Commons multipurpose arena.

"It could become a white elephant if we're not careful," he said.

Commissioner Howard said by selling the arena the county could do away with the $650,000 per year loan payment.

But Commissioner Williams said she wants to keep the arena and combine the Tourism and Parks and Recreation Departments.