06/03/08 — Duplin commissioners hear budget pleas

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Duplin commissioners hear budget pleas

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 3, 2008 1:47 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Commissioners heard everything from pleas for more money for education, recreation and fire services, to admonishments against wasteful spending, excessive taxes and the need to cut county jobs at a public hearing Monday night on the proposed 2008-09 budget.

About 300 people attended the hearing, held at the state Cooperative Extension Service office. The debate got rowdy on several occasions, with County Manager Mike Aldridge forced to ask for quiet on several occasions.

The audience responded with boos and catcalls when Aldridge announced that the commissioners would reconvene next Monday at 9 a.m. for another work session on the $48 million proposal.

One audience member yelled out people were "working to pay taxes" at that time of day.

Aldridge responded that the board must have a budget ready to vote on at its June 16 session. That meeting will start at 6:30 p.m.

Commissioner Reginald Wells said he wanted it to be reflected in the record that commissioners held three days of work session last month and that only four commissioners showed up.

"One declared he wasn't going to come," Wells said.

Wells said that all six board members should be at Monday's meeting.

He did not identify the two missing commissioners. However, following the hearing Commissioner David Fussell told the News-Argus that he would respond during next Monday's session to comments that he had boycotted the work sessions.

Duplin County Public Schools Superintendent. Dr. Wiley Doby said the board's decision to cut the schools' request from $13.2 million to $7.3 million would cost the county teachers, teacher assistants and supplies.

The system needs $9.3 million just "to break even" he said.

Duplin County ranks 104th out of 115 school systems statewide in terms of local support for education,
Doby said.

Duplin's per-student funding is $770.40 compared to the state average of $1,692.89.

North Duplin Jr./Sr. High School Principal Dr. Debra Hunter said she was concerned about her students and what they will miss out on because of budget cuts. She said she had been told she will lose three and one-half teaching positions next year bringing the total number lost thus far to four. She said the school cannot afford to lose honors and advanced placements courses because of a lack of funding.

"I need some help," she said. "I need those four positions to complete my staff. It is important to North Duplin, it is important to the county."

Cliff Phillips, chairman of the county's Parks and Recreation Committee, appealed to commissioners to reconsider their proposal to eliminate the department. He noted that even state government recognizes the importance of recreation for children and adults.

"I wonder if the citizens understand what this (cut) means,' he said.

He said the recreation programs not only provides healthy activities for children, but also activities to "keep them from having to see the sheriff." Adult programs are offered as well.

But most speakers called on commissioners to reduce spending.

Hank Frey called the Duplin County Events Center a "millstone" that is costing the county a $1,000 a day plus debt payments. His comment that it was time to "mothball" the facility drew a loud round of applause from the audience.

Joe Bryant called the Events Center a "pink elephant."

"Give it to the sheriff and turn it into a jail," he said.

He said it could "take in inmates from other counties and make money."

Both men agreed that the county had too many employees. Frey said a recent pay study asking about salaries had asked the wrong question.

"It should have asked about staff size and productivity,' he said. "You spent $80,000 asking the wrong question."

Bryant said the county could save money by eliminating the county tourism department and contracting out the work for economic development.

"We can't stand any more taxes," he said.

He said that the county emergency medical services department has the capability to "break this county."

Thurman Herring, who spoke on behalf of more funding for the county's fire departments, told Bryant, "Sir, I do hope there is an EMS available when you need it."

Earlier, Winslow Tew, president of the Duplin County Firemen's Association, urged commissioners to restore cuts they had made to funding for fire departments. A $1 million increase had been sought in order to double the annual amount the county funds from $24,000 to $48,000 per fire department. Even with that amount, fire fighters will still need to hold fundraisers to support their departments, Tew said.

Prior to the hearing, commissioners scrapped a proposed new county pay plan and chose to give employees a 4 percent across-the-board raise.

They also voted to eliminate $295,000 in restricted-use funds for the county's public schools until it can be determined whether the county can fund the entire $750,000 that had been requested.