06/02/09 — Schools just one part of Duplin budget plan

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Schools just one part of Duplin budget plan

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 2, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Despite all the discussion Monday about the school system's portion of Duplin County's $47 million budget, it is just that -- a portion.

Overall, the county's projected spending plan is down nearly $465,000 from the current fiscal year.

County Manager Mike Aldridge explained that because of the recently completed revaluation, which saw the total assessed real property valuation increase from $3.11 billion in 2008-09 to $3.7 billion for 2009-10, the commissioners decided they wanted a revenue neutral tax rate -- meaning a decrease from 79 cents per $100 value to 70.16 cents per $100.

"The commissioners wanted to keep the burden on the taxpayer at a minimum. They decided early on they wanted to go with a revenue neutral tax rate," Aldridge said.

But that move, plus decreases in motor vehicle tax collections and sales tax receipts means county revenues are down, and that means the county's recent belt-tightening will continue.

"That puts a lot of pressure on the departments to cut costs and still maintain staff and services," Aldridge said. "We have been on a trend the last several years cutting the budget incrementally each year.

"We spend what we budget, and as time goes on, there is not that money left over to sweep into the fund balance and that's putting pressure on our fund balance.

"Historically, we've been in the high 20 percents, and we're slipping below 20 percent now and that's not a comfortable position to be in, particularly as we talk about large capital projects such as schools and a jail."

One good piece of news, Aldridge said, was that 2008-09 marked the last year for counties to pay Medicaid expenses, which allowed $2 million to come off the books, although that savings will not be fully realized because of state action to withhold sales tax dollars in exchange.

Other points of interest, he said are the lack of new employees and the lack of salary increases for employees.

He also noted that the Events Center will continue to operate at a loss of approximately $313,000, James Sprunt Community College will receive an incremental increase in current expense funding, the number of county EMS units will remain the same and the sheriff's office will receive six new vehicles.

But overall, he said he thought the county did a good job of holding the line on its expenses.

"I think our departments have done what you asked and have been conservative in their requests," Aldridge told the commission. "But we've also tried not to paralyze any of our operations."

And while the commission may not be in a position currently to entertain any large capital projects, they did hear a presentation Monday night from Lee McClure, a consultant with Construction Control Corp., about the current advantages for counties looking to build -- historically low interest rates, new bond opportunities and low bids.

"There is a window of opportunity right now," he said, telling commissioners they can save upward of 30 percent on most construction projects right now -- a savings of $22 million on a $50 million project.

"But we think anybody who thinks they're going to wait two to three years to start, stands a pretty good chance of missing this window," he said.

And while the county isn't likely to act this fiscal year, Aldridge said, he did think the presentation was one the board needed to hear.

"I think that was just some food for thought as we look a little further down the road," he said. "There's a compelling reason to at least consider making that move now, but I'm not sure if we're at that point yet."