05/23/06 — Duplin debates how to handle budget shortfall

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Duplin debates how to handle budget shortfall

By Turner Walston
Published in News on May 23, 2006 1:51 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County commissioners argued over increasing taxes, but reached no conclusions Monday about what to do about the county's nearly $1 million budget shortfall or the looming deadline to get a spending plan approved.

With five weeks to go before the budget deadline, commissioners debated various ways to handle the 2006-07 plan, which is still short $969,111 despite using $3.7 million of the county's fund balance.

The commissioners took no action at Monday's budget workshop.

Commissioner Larry Howard moved that the commission adopt the balanced budget presented by former County Manager Fred Eldridge in April. That budget, which Eldridge wrote but did not endorse, creates no new positions, allocates $300,000 for the county's Board of Education, and scales back from eight to six the number of Emergency Medical Services sites.

Howard said while he did not agree with many of the particulars of Eldridge's budget, some action must be taken, and soon.

"We're sitting here, spinning our wheels, but we've got to go," he said.

Chairman Zettie Williams said she would not vote for Eldridge's proposal.

"We asked Fred to do a balanced budget," she said. "I respect him for doing it, but there are certain things about it I just don't agree with."

"I thought we committed ourselves to at least giving half-a-million dollars," to county schools, Commissioner Reginald Wells said.

Howard's motion was defeated, 4-2, with only Commissioner Arliss Albertson and Howard voting for Eldridge's plan.

School Superintendent Wiley Doby asked the commissioners to remember the needs of the school system.

"I know you have a difficult job, and I respect the job that you do," he said. Doby reminded commissioners of the vote allocating $500,000 for county schools. But, he said, "Our needs go greater than that."

Wells said he spent the weekend thinking of possible solutions for the county's budget woes.

"I'm ready to make a motion that we increase taxes to take care of the needs that have been presented," he said. "I'm tired of haggling with this. If it means committing political suicide, I'll kill myself politically."

With that, Wells made a motion to increase the property tax rate to 80.5 cents per $100.

In seconding the motion, Commissioner L.S. Guy said commissioners "have an obligation to provide the very best we can for the people of Duplin County."

The current property tax rate, 77 cents per $100, is the county's highest since 2000, when the rate was 77.5 cents. Rates increased from 70.5 to 74.5 cents in 2003, then 77 cents in 2004.

Ms. Williams said that increasing taxes by 3.5 cents and using $3.7 million of the county's fund balance would not sit well with Duplin residents.

But Guy said the county is running out of options.

"We've had every opportunity I know of to go back and re-organize," he said.

"I feel like, at this point, it's the easy way out to raise taxes," Ms. Williams said.

Commissioner David Fussell agreed.

"One of the worst things that the Board of County Commissioners can do to the people of Duplin County is to raise property taxes," Fussell said. He added that higher taxes would hamper the county's ability to attract new businesses.

Commissioners were split when voting on the motion, with Wells, Howard and Guy voting for the tax increase, and Albertson, Williams and Fussell dissenting.

"We said we were going to try," Wells said following the vote. "So we're going to keep trying until we do something."

Albertson moved to close the county's economic development office, effective July 1. The motion was not seconded.

Commissioners considered an interim budget, but no motion was made.

"I don't believe an interim budget would serve any purpose if we're just going to continue like we're doing now," Guy said.

Wells agreed. "In three months, we'll be back here with the same issues that are facing us today."

Still, Ms. Williams said, commissioners should consider every angle before raising taxes.

"The easy way out is to raise my right hand and say 'Yes, 3.5 cents,'" she said.

Interim County Manager Judy Brown presented a list of county departments and offered to go over it line-by-line with the commissioners in an attempt to cut expenses.

"It's the six of you that have got to come to a consensus as to what is in the budget and what comes out of it," Brown said.

Ms. Williams then moved that the county's EMS operate on a 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule. Currently, EMS technicians operate on a schedule of 24 hours on, 72 off.

Craig Forlines, director of emergency services, warned Ms. Williams that a change in schedule would be a mistake. As the county operates on a flex-pay system for EMS, technicians working overtime would earn just $3 an hour over 40 hours, he said.

"Fifty-seven percent of the staff has said they will resign and go to other counties based upon that work schedule," he said.

"Don't you think, if we try hard enough, Craig, we can make it work?" Ms. Williams asked.

"I'm advising you that 57 percent of your staff has said, if we go to that system, they will leave. If 57 percent of your personnel leave, you cannot run the system," Forlines responded.

Thurman Herring, a member of the county's EMS and Fire Advisory Board, told commissioners that he did not think the county's EMS could operate with just six sites.

"Nobody wants to work for $3 an hour," Herring said. "If you want good EMS, it's just simple," he said. "You're going to have to pay for it.

Ms. Williams' motion failed, as she offered the only "yes" vote.

Commissioners set another budget workshop for Thursday at 1 p.m. A public hearing on the county's budget proposal will be held Monday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at Monk Auditorium on the campus of James Sprunt Community College. The hearing will coincide with the commissioners' regular meeting.