02/15/07 — Duplin commissioners to consider budget, redistricting

View Archive

Duplin commissioners to consider budget, redistricting

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 15, 2007 1:47 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Meeting Monday to discuss a variety of issues involving the upcoming budget process, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners left after three hours with no decisions made, but with a lot of items for consideration.

"I think we put most things out on the table so both the commissioners and the community can know what we're talking about and we can get everybody's input," board Chairman David Fussell said.

He added that he expects most of the issues to come back up again in the form of commissioners' motions, beginning at their meeting on Monday.

Among those things discussed were the 13 recommendations from the county's fiscal advisory committee, as well as two long lists of items from commissioners Fussell and L.S. Guy.

"I thought it was very productive," commissioner Cary Turner said. "Some of the things presented I'm already in favor of, and some of the others, I'm going to have to look at."

Of the dozens of items on the agenda, the only two that really produced any heated discussion were at the beginning and at the end of the meeting -- budgeting and redistricting.

Kicking things off were the fiscal advisory committee's recommendations about how the budget process should flow and how the budget should be balanced without dipping into reserve funds to pay for needed tax cuts.

At their meeting last week, the commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution directing the county manager to prepare a 2007-08 budget that is based on a maximum tax rate of 79 cents per $100 value, uses no more than $1.85 million of the fund balance and gives county employees a 2 percent salary increase. On Monday, however, some of the commissioners re-voiced concerns that they had pre-empted their committee's recommendations.

Commissioner Reginald Wells, in particular, wondered if the potential tax cut went far enough.

"Seventy-seven cents was the golden goose for a year-and-a-half," he said. "It was stated in the county that 77 was all we could afford. That's what's been preached for the last year-and-a-half."

However, Turner -- who made the motion at the last commission meeting -- once again explained that he was not trying to set the tax rate, but was simply trying to give the county staff a direction to work toward.

"When the department heads are preparing their budget, they'll be in more of a position to prepare based on need rather than want," he said. "I think 79 cents is a safe rate. It's a maximum. If we can come back with a 77-cent rate, I'd be tickled to death."

Wells also voiced his concern about the board giving its blessing for more than a million dollars to be used out of the fund balance, when the advisory committee was recommending that none of it be touched.

Again, Turner responded, "My reason was to give (Aldridge) a little leeway. I think we're showing intent to lower it."

Commissioner Zettie Williams agreed, adding that it was unrealistic to expect the county to immediately cut off all fund balance appropriations. The 2006-07 budget was approved last June with $3.7 million scheduled to come from the fund balance. Since then, another $2 million has been given out.

"One-point-eight is a long way from 3.7 and who knows, we may not have to use that much this year," she said. "Maybe next year we can reduce it to zero."

But all agreed that for this year, if they follow through with cutting both taxes and fund balance appropriations, the county government is going to be squeezed.

"We're going to be looking at across-the-board cuts," county Manager Mike Aldridge said. "Everybody's going to take a hit."

Hoping to manage the impact of those cuts, though, much of the rest of the meeting was spent discussing cost-cutting and revenue-increasing measures. Among the ideas discussed were increased efforts to work with towns to collect taxes and share in library costs, selling foreclosed properties, and freezing county hiring -- except in public safety -- and allowing departments to reduce costs as people retire.

Also discussed was the possible privatization of county services such as the garage and maintenance department, adult day care and senior citizen services, the water department, the jail, the animal shelter and the solid waste department.

Some of those, the commissioners said, might be viable options, while others might not. The key, they explained, is that nothing be considered sacred.

"We ought to be willing to investigate everything," Guy said.

The two areas they discussed possibly increasing spending in, however, were education -- both the public schools and James Sprunt Community College -- and public safety, including public health, emergency management and emergency medical services and the Sheriff's Office.

"If we will take care of education and public safety, economic development will take care of itself," Fussell said.

Ending the meeting was a discussion about whether or not to add a seventh commissioner to the current six-member board, whether through redistricting or through an at-large seat.

The purpose of the proposal, Fussell said, was mainly to reduce the number of tie votes on the board.

That, however, was not enough of a reason for Wells and Williams, both of whom are black and felt that any change in the status quo would upset the board's minority representation.

"You have not proved to the public that a seventh person is needed for services," Williams said. "We don't see the need for a seventh person. We're saying we need a seventh person only to break a tie, not for services.

"Don't vote for a seventh person just to break a tie. It's just not right."

The board's current six-district structure was drawn in February 1988 in response to a lawsuit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that contended Duplin County's minorities were being underrepresented. A seventh seat could not be added without going back through the court system and according to Wells, it's a move the NAACP would seek to block.

"What I think, is that by redrawing districts there will be less minority representation on this board. It will cut us out," Wells said. "Folks fought and died and marched so I can sit on this board. This board needs to reflect the citizens of this county."

Besides, he added quietly, "Sometimes a tie is good."