05/26/06 — Duplin officials will add tax hike

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Duplin officials will add tax hike

By Turner Walston
Published in News on May 26, 2006 1:51 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Commissioners agreed during a work session Thursday to include a 3.5-cent increase in the property tax rate when they approve a budget for 2006-07.

The rate is currently 77 cents per $100 worth of property. By state law, a county budget must be adopted by July 1. Duplin's rate hasn't changed since 2004.

Entering the workshop, commissioners were facing a budget shortfall of nearly $969,111, despite reaching into the county's reserve account for $3.7 million.

At the workshop, commissioners discussed hiring freezes and re-organization of departments. Economic Development Director Woody Brinson was able to identify $21,500 in funding his department could cut. But five hours after the workshop began, the shortfall remained at nearly $950,000.

The commissioners, who have struggled for weeks to come up with a budget plan, decided to bite the bullet.

"To keep us from falling to pieces with fear, we need to take a position," Commissioner L.S. Guy said. He then moved that property taxes be increased by 3.5 cents to cover the shortfall.

After Commissioner Reginald Wells seconded Guy's motion, Chairman Zettie Williams asked for discussion. There was none. When the question was called, Guy and Wells voted in favor of the motion, with commissioners Williams and David Fussell voting against it. Commissioners Larry Howard and Arliss Albertson hesitated before casting their votes.

"I vote for it," Albertson said after several moments.

"I reckon if I abstain, I'll go with the majority won't I?" Howard asked before confirming his yes vote.

Commissioners had considered accepting the budget presented by former County Manager Fred Eldridge. That budget would have eliminated two county emergency services stations and allocated $305,000 for Duplin County Schools and $17,000 for James Sprunt Community College.

"I think it's irresponsible for us to approve that budget based on the needs of Duplin County," Guy said.

"It's not a budget I like, either," Albertson said.

Fussell said the budget was still not addressing the needs of education and public safety.

"That's right," Superintendent Wiley Doby agreed.

Guy suggested eliminating the position of assistant county manager, instead creating a position of administrative assistant to the manager, in addition to a clerk position.

"If you can't offer something better, be careful what you don't vote for," he said.

"Why are you micro-managing the manager's office?" interim County Manager Judy Brown asked. She suggested letting the new county manager decide what is needed in the office after someone is hired to replace Eldridge.

Guy then pulled out a white handkerchief, smiled and waved it, and the proposal was tabled.

Fussell moved to appoint Planning Director Mike Aldridge as interim county manager, and proposed a countywide hiring freeze, except in the sheriff's office, emergency services and fire departments. Aldridge said he would then meet with department heads and later present a revised budget based on the current property tax rate.

"Our county employees are suffering more with our indecision than they are with our decision," Fussell said.

After Aldridge expressed some hesitation, given the restrictions of the motion, it failed by a 4-2 vote, with Fussell and Williams casting the yes votes.

Wells then moved that a fiscal oversight committee be formed for the 2007-08 budget, consisting of the county manager, the commissioners and three citizens from each commission district. The committee would serve an advisory role and would not make policy, Wells said. The motion was approved unanimously.

"Let's get back to '06-'07," Ms. Williams said after the vote.

Wells moved that Ms. Brown take the proposed budget, make line-item cuts and bring it back before the commissioners.

"I will agree to do that if you agree to adopt what I present you. If not, I've wasted my time," she said.

Ms. Brown said the budget she would present would be the same balanced budget that Eldridge presented.

"We're at an impasse now," Wells said. "I'll withdraw my motion."

Putting new items in a balanced budget means making cuts elsewhere, Brown said.

"We can either cut, or do the dreaded, raise taxes," Wells said.

"We just don't have the intestinal fortitude to do either, to cut or to add," Guy said. "Everything's sacred to somebody." He then made the motion to raise taxes that was approved.

A public hearing on the proposed budget is set for Monday, June 19, at 7 p.m.