02/11/07 — Duplin advisory committee makes fiscal suggestions

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Duplin advisory committee makes fiscal suggestions

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 11, 2007 8:43 AM

Four months and close to a dozen meetings later, the Duplin County Fiscal Advisory Committee finally presented a list of 13 recommendations to the county Board of Commissioners.

On that list were suggestions regarding how the budget process should flow, the need for a balanced budget without using reserve funds, an examination of the county's pay scale and regular communication about the county's fiscal situation to residents.

"It was a lot of brainstorming," committee member Albert Brown of Rose Hill said. "We got together and discussed a lot of ideas and then we narrowed it down.

"A lot of thought was put into this process, and I think the information speaks very well for what we were trying to do."

The committee was created by the commissioners in late summer 2006 after they finished a somewhat acrimonious budget process in which the property tax rate was raised three-and-a-half cents to 80.5 cents per $100 value and the budget also increased by nearly $3 million to $45.48 million.

The committee also was charged with examining the county's budget and budget process and developing new ways for the county to become more efficient and cost-effective.

"We had a good group working together. I think everybody sort of agreed about what's best for Duplin County. Duplin County has a lot to offer, and I want it to remain that way," member Mike Davis of Mount Olive said. "It's things like having a balanced budget, not spending more than you take in, making people more accountable."

And while many of the 13 recommendations might seem fairly obvious -- such as No. 3, Develop a balanced budget without using reserve funds in an effort to maintain or reduce the tax rate and No. 4, Understand current costs as well as long term costs of new programs before adopting them -- committee member Ralph Britt said they were trying to simply give the commissioners an outline to follow and a goal to work toward.

Even though the 15-member committee had access to whatever information they needed and several members had financial and managerial backgrounds, the Calypso resident continued, none of them were experts in county government.

"The job of setting the budget is the county commissioners'. We can't set the budget for them," Britt said. "Our job wasn't, I don't think, to specifically tell them what to cut and what not to cut and where to spend money, but rather to give them some guidelines -- a litmus test they can follow while developing a budget.

"I don't think we came up with any magic wand or silver bullet, but maybe we were able to give them some good ideas and put some things on the table for discussion. They'll have to take the theme of our meetings and translate that into action."

Already, that process is under way.

At their meeting Monday, the commissioners accepted a budget schedule and directed county Manager Mike Aldridge to begin preparing a 2007-08 budget that uses a 79-cent tax rate, no more than $1.85 million out of the fund balance and includes a 2 percent salary increase for county employees.

Committee members are confident, though, that when the board meets Monday for a budget and goals workshop at 9 a.m. in the conference room at the Duplin Department of Social Services, their suggestions will be taken seriously.

"There's no doubt they'll be listened to," Davis said. "We all worked as a team -- the committee, the commissioners and the (county) staff. I feel very good about it."

Looking forward to Monday's meeting, commission Chairman David Fussell said he is anxious to begin putting those suggestions to use.

"They gave us some broad goals. Our job is to turn them into specific items," he said. "What I would like for us to do is take a clean sheet of paper and say, 'This is our government structure and everything can be changed and improved. What would be the ideal institution that conforms to these 13 goals?' And whatever it is, do it.

"It's like remodeling an old house, sometimes you're better off just starting over, and I believe our county government is ready to start from scratch. It's time now to forge a new path."