11/18/08 — Duplin officials tell commission budget woes will affect county

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Duplin officials tell commission budget woes will affect county

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on November 18, 2008 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County officials said Monday that financial problems are threatening education, public safety and even water quality in the county.

Duplin Utility Director Donna Brown and Sheriff Blake Wallace told the county Board of Commissioners that they are losing critical employees to better paying jobs.

Mrs. Brown said she has only three employees in the Water Department who are certified to test wells, including herself. She needs eight for the system to work efficiently, and she lost one recently to a better paying job. Two of her three remaining certified water technicians have been offered jobs paying more in other counties but have chosen to stay.

She told commissioners the department has more than 6,000 customers from Mount Olive to Pender County, and they're getting 25 new customers every month.

"If I were to lose one of these, I would have to contract out the readings at a higher cost," Mrs. Brown said.

When asked later if the problem could become a public health issue, she said, "It could come to that."

Sheriff Wallace told commissioners that his office, too, is in dire straits. He said his office is five deputies short of having a full staff. The sheriff is five deputies short. On some shifts in the jail, two detention officers have to oversee 115 inmates. Wallace said he should have three on a shift at the jail.

The overall shortage in the sheriff's office is causing veteran deputies to have to work beyond their regular time. The budget for this year allowed the sheriff $35,000 for overtime. He has already spent $50,000.

Compensatory time is not an option in the Sheriff's Office, Wallace said, when a deputy is called out to a homicide or a special operations roundup.

And most of the time, he said, it is the veterans who get called out in the middle of the night.

"We can pay a starting deputy or jailer cheaper than we can pay a veteran overtime," Wallace said, asking commissioners to make an exception to the hiring freeze and allow him hire a full-time jailer to replace a sergeant who left for better pay. Even towns in Duplin pay their law enforcement officers more than he can, he said.

Two jailers watching 115 inmates is a dangerous situation, he said.

"We are to a point now where we are beyond our capacity," he said. "Most of these who are working time and a half are veterans being paid $30,000 a year. In the jail, we have paid almost $30,000 in overtime and to part-time positions, and we can hire a new jailer at $28,000."

To alleviate the situation, commissioners instructed County Manager Mike Aldridge to find someone in another county department to transfer to the Water Department. The sheriff's request was deferred for consideration at the commissioners' meeting Dec. 1.

Commissioner David Fussell said that the examples given by Brown and Wallace is why the county government needs to reorganize. He warned the other commissioners they are going to have to face possibly laying employees off.

"We are short-changing education and public safety," he said.

And as the economic downturn continues, Fussell said, the Sheriff's Office needs are going to be increasingly critical.

"We are not paying our good employees enough," he said, adding that the county could pay good workers better if it had fewer on the payroll.

Fussell said the county needs a performance audit like the one the public school system is currently undergoing.

He said he has studied the budget, and that with some severe cuts, he believes the county will need a two-cent property tax increase just to operate in the black.

The school board successfully sued the commissioners for more money several months ago. Coming up with the additional money would raise that increase to eight cents, Fussell added. Without severe cuts in the operating budget, he said, the county could be looking at an increase of as much as 16 cents.