01/04/07 — Duplin County leaders looking forward, and backward, as another year dawns

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Duplin County leaders looking forward, and backward, as another year dawns

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on January 4, 2007 1:55 PM

Looking back, between lawsuits, resignations, new hires and elections, 2006 was not a quiet year in Duplin County, and with not even a week gone and tax cuts and cost-cutting measures already being discussed, 2007 is shaping up to be just as busy.

In 2006, a lawsuit was filed against the county by non-emergency transport company Johnston Ambulance Services after emergency services director Curtis Brock, and former JAS employee Barbara Coman were charged with computer trespassing and illegally accessing computers in July. Since then, Ms. Coman reached a plea agreement and testified against Brock, who was found guilty by a District Court judge in November. Next up for him is a Superior Court jury.

In May, County Manager Fred Eldridge retired and in June, Assistant County Manager Judy Brown followed suit.

Taking Eldridge's place was planning director Mike Aldridge, while county planner Randall Tyndall stepped into his position.

Then in October, Brian Pearce was hired as the new EMS director after Brock's May resignation.

And finally, longtime commissioners Arliss Albertson and Larry Howard were defeated in November's election by Harold Raynor and Cary Turner.

All in all, though, former county Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Zettie Williams said she felt they had a pretty successful year.

"As usual it was a good year for Duplin County," Ms. Williams said. "I feel like we accomplished a lot last year."

Topping the list of positives was the county's pace of economic development.

"I've been the (county) economic development (commission) director since 1984 and the last 18 months have definitely been the most active 18 months we've ever had," Woody Brinson said. "I can't remember any major employer closing in 2006 and we had quite a few expand."

With his office averaging about one project a week -- not all of which came to fruition -- he estimated that the county added between 700 and 800 new jobs and about $70 million in new investments.

He expects that growth will continue.

"We've still got a lot of projects out there. There's a lot of projects out there on the brink of becoming active," Brinson said. "We'll see more growth in the first half of 2007."

Another accomplishment was the first full year of activity at the Duplin County Events Center, which officials said, has more or less met expectations.

"I think it's gone about as good as the county had hoped for it to go, especially for a first year of operations," Aldridge said.

But there are questions surrounding the center's future as the county staff and the commissioners look for ways to save money.

"Certainly we'd like to see it do better as far as the number of events and attendance at the events," Aldridge said. "One of the biggest challenges has been, and will continue to be, determining what role the county should play in running the events center. That's got to be decided by the board.

"Right now the county is in the entertainment business and that's new. That's a big step from where we were before."

If it were up to commission chairman David Fussell, though, the county wouldn't be in the entertainment business. According to his figures, the Duplin Commons and the Events Center cost the county about $3,400 a day -- a cost he would like to turn over to a private entity.

"Our poor county can't afford that. That's an easy one," he said, adding that privatizing the Events Center is just one idea he has for cutting the county's costs in 2007.

Among his other ideas are the privatization or reorganization of other county programs, such as Cabin Lake Park, the county's libraries and the county museum. He also would like to see the consolidation of county departments and the elimination of unnecessary jobs.

"What we need to do is cut personnel," he said. "Wherever we can privatize and maintain services, we should do that."

If they can cutback on the personnel count, he continued, the county's leaders will be able to pay the remaining staff more competitive salaries.

Fussell's other goals -- in reverse order -- are education and improving student performance, improving public safety and lowering the tax rate.

To help education, Fussell said, the commissioners need to become more active in communicating with the county Board of Education and working with the school system to make sure all the needs are being met.

"Education is really controlled by our Board of Education, not us," he said. "We need to encourage the Board of Education to become more active in presenting their needs to the community, and we need to be more involved in communicating to them how to spend our hard-earned tax money better than they sometimes do."

In terms of public safety, Fussell said, the county must continue to provide the necessary resources to the Sheriff's Office, particularly as it begins to confront Duplin's gang problem. He also wants to continue to hold the emergency medical services department to its high standards, but he's placing special emphasis on the county's volunteer fire departments.

"We must support them," he said. "The days of buying these $200,000 fire trucks with barbecue suppers are over. I'm for increasing the amount of money our volunteer fire departments get."

But Fussell's biggest goal for 2007 is decreasing the county's 80.5-cent-per-$100-value property tax rate.

"That's No. 1. We must re-prioritize our county government so we can meet the needs of our citizens without raising taxes and I think there's a real good chance to decrease taxes," he said. "Our two new commissioners were elected on an overwhelming mandate to do just that and I got that message, too.

"Our taxes are too high. That would be the most positive thing we can do. That's my No. 1 goal this year -- to reduce the tax burden on our citizens."

And if all three of those goals -- lower taxes, better education and better public safety -- come together, Fussell continued, then "economic development will take care of itself."

"We've got a great county and great people," he said. "There's a lot of things we must do and I think we've got a real chance to achieve them."