Duplin leaders battle for hours over budgets and bills
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 21, 2007 1:46 PM
KENANSVILLE -- Tempers flared at Duplin County's Board of Commissioners meeting Monday as its members debated the financial status of several of the county's departments.
Opening that discussion was emergency medical services director Brian Pearce.
After first presenting to the board several positive comments his employees recently received from patients, he attempted to explain to the commissioners the financial status of his department and how it is doing in terms of billing and collecting.
Since the beginning of the current fiscal year on July 1, Pearce said, they have only been able to bill for 57 percent of Duplin's emergency medical calls.
The other 43 percent are considered public service calls and are therefore unbillable. Those include joint responses with the county's fire departments, ambulance presence at football games and other county events, and basic treatment calls where little or no medical assistance is rendered.
The board also voted to include in those public service calls any transportation of county inmates from the jail to the hospital.
"Almost half of the calls we go on, we don't bill for," Pearce said. "We are billing appropriately for those calls that are transported."
Unfortunately, he continued, because of the rules governing Medicaid and Medicare, they aren't able to collect the full amount of a large percentage of those billed calls.
So far this year, he said, Duplin's emergency medical services department has cost the county about $2.2 million. Of the amount billed, $652,000 has been collected, while about $400,000 has been written off. In addition, about another $900,000 has been rendered in public service assistance.
That means, Pearce explained, when taking into account the amount of money collected plus the amount they can't collect, the department is only running about $200,000 to $250,000 expenditures over revenues.
"It's not nearly as bad when you look at it that way," he said.
Commissioner Chairman David Fussell disagreed, however.
"We've created a program the cost of which Duplin County cannot afford," he said. "We've created a monster. It is an excellent monster, but we cannot continue to charge our citizens these high rates (taxes and ambulance transportation rates). These kinds of rates will bankrupt any business and this county is a business."
The only course of action the county has, Fussell continued, is to look at other options -- something an advisory committee chaired by commissioner Cary Turner is currently doing.
"We're going to have to reconstruct emergency medical services and make it more financially viable for the county," Fussell said.
He would not, however, elaborate on that point, choosing instead to wait for a report from Turner's advisory committee.
One option that should be considered, commissioner L.S. Guy said, is non-emergency transports. Unfortunately, he continued, it's not on the table for a variety of reasons, including a pending lawsuit by non-emergency transport company Johnston Ambulance Services.
"I believe the emergency services the county has are very necessary, but if we can do it in a more economical way, I would not be opposed to that," Guy said. "I would charge Brian to find better ways, but this Duplin County problem is not unique in North Carolina.
"Non-emergency transport fees are a source of revenue that would add to our efforts to pay for the services we get."
But emergency medical services wasn't the only area of county government coming under scrutiny Monday morning.
The commissioners also heard from county emergency services director Craig Forlines on his proposal to use a $19,000 grant to give pay raises to himself, the assistant fire marshal, the communications director and their administrative assistant.
He explained that he was asking to use the state performance grant for salary increases because all four of their rates are either on par or less than what their surrounding counterparts are making.
"I thought it would be prudent to bring free money to try and address those deficiencies," Forlines said.
The commissioners, however, refused to use one-time grant money for recurring salary expenses. Even though the county could receive the grant next year, too, it might not be for the same amount. They also refused to give the money to the employees in the form of one-time bonuses because it might create the expectation of such funding next year.
"I'm wondering if other needs can be met and salary needs worked out at budget time," commissioner Zettie Williams said.
Ultimately, Forlines did agree to find another use for the money within his department.
Because of the debate over Forlines' request, though, the board voted to not consider any more salary increases or employee reclassifications until the budget process begins, unless they are brought by the county manager -- the board's original policy anyway, Turner said.
Later, following the recommendation of manager Mike Aldridge, the commissioners approved a reclassification and salary increase for the county's Soil and Water Conservation Service department head as they prepare to advertise the position.
And finally, the commissioners and solid waste director Bee Barnette clashed over a request by Fussell for him to create two five-year projections for his department based on the current $90 annual solid waste fee and a $60 annual solid waste fee.
"I'll do anything you want, but I think it's wasted time," Barnette said, adding that he feels like his department is being singled out for attack. "We do not spend money like crazy at the landfill. Every employee will tell you that I always say let's see how we can do it cheaper.
"But you cannot operate our thing on $60."
But department heads weren't the only ones clashing with the commissioners Monday. There was a bit of infighting on the board as well.
The first was over a resolution introduced by Fussell for the board to support the restoration of Bradshaw Mill Pond along Indian Creek east of Rose Hill.
The pond, which he said has historic value and if restored could be a tourist attraction for the county, sits partly on land owned by Fussell. And while he did recuse himself from debate on the matter, Guy moved for the proposal to be deferred until another one of the landowners brought it before the board.
"I like the idea, but it could be a real problem," he said, noting that Fussell stands to benefit financially from the project.
"It's a matter of perception," commissioner Reginald Wells added.
And ultimately, while he was not asking for anything but support from the board as he and his neighbors applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fussell did decide to withdraw his proposal.
Later in the meeting, Fussell was again called out by his fellow commissioners while speaking about their goals workshop last week as the meeting neared the five-hour mark.
Specifically, he was talking about the need to change the way the county government operates.
As part of that, he brought up again the possibility of adding a seventh member to the board.
"That was not a racial issue," he said of the seventh district, which some would like to see added to prevent tie votes.
At the workshop, Wells and Williams, both of whom are black, protested the addition of a seventh district. The current six-district format was created after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the county for more fair representation on the board.
Wells said that if any move was made to change that format, the NAACP has indicated they would fight it.
"We should not throw the race card on any item that is not directly that," Fussell said. "We should look at the package as a whole for what's in the best interest of Duplin County."
Neither Wells or Mrs. Williams chose to reply.
But Fussell wasn't finished and he continued to discuss the need to lower taxes and the need to consider the privatization of county services -- the latter of which had earlier drawn protests from water department director Stanely Miller who felt such talk, even with no concrete plans surrounding it, was hurting the morale of county employees.
"The two former commissioners were defeated overwhelmingly by Mr. Turner and Mr. (Harold) Raynor, who have come on board with a mandate to change the way we do business," Fussell said. "The people have spoken."
This time, however, Mrs. Williams interrupted.
"At the beginning of the meeting we adopted a set agenda and testimonials were not part of that agenda," she said. "I think we need to move on."
And while Fussell protested that he was still following the agenda and was discussing the recommendations of the Fiscal Advisory Committee, which were formally adopted by the board, the rest of the commissioners voted (five to one) to end discussion.
"I'm not going to open my mouth again on budget issues until Mike Aldridge brings it to us on May 23," Fussell said in response.
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