05/11/10 — Duplin commissioners back down on some extreme budget cutbacks

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Duplin commissioners back down on some extreme budget cutbacks

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on May 11, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Faced with completely cutting several public services, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners reversed course Monday and voted to add $2.9 million from the county fund balance to the 2010-11 budget.

After much discussion, board members voted 4-0 in favor of ordering County Manager Mike Aldridge to restore the services in his budget. Aldridge last week offered a budget that contained drastic cuts to senior citizen programs, the library, the planning department, the county Events Center and the Cooperative Extension Service.

It also would have also eliminated school resource officers, closed the county airport, veterans programs, parks and economic development office.

He told commissioners he had followed their instructions in coming up with a plan that would save as much money as possible.

"I was not trying to make it appear worse than it was," he said, "and I think I was as surprised as perhaps you were to find that those amounts of cuts were necessary to achieve the budget reductions that the board had set forth."

"Is this the very best budget that you can prepare in light of the instructions that the board has given you?" Commissioner David Fussell asked Aldridge.

"It's very close, yes. I'll say that there are some tweaks that we will make as we work through the process, but there's nothing that's drastically going to change. It's pretty close to what I can say is the best I can do with what you've given me to work with," Aldridge said.

The rationale behind the cuts was to cut what services the county is not required by law to provide, he said.

"Those departments that you did not cut, are there some areas there that could be readjusted downward and are there some departments that need more?" Fussell said.

Aldridge said that at some point, the issue comes down to whether the county will provide a service or not.

"You get to a point in cutting, like with say the planning department or the manager's office, the question becomes, do you want that or don't you? Because if you want a planning department that's what it's going to cost to run it, one person, salary benefits, supplies, telephone, so there's not a lot of wriggle room to cut and still have a person in that position doing the job," he said.

Commissioner Frances Parks said officials need to look closely at smaller items. Even reducing the amount of postage used could be a significant help, she pointed out. She also suggested the possibility of moving some county offices to a four-day workweek, the same as Wayne County.

Commissioner Reginald Wells said the budget discussion was fueled by politics, and that the board was backpedaling from its earlier decision not to take money from the fund balance or to raise taxes to balance the budget.

The county Board of Education's lawsuit against the county, resulting in a $4.8 million payment the county must make to the schools, helped put commissioners in the red.

Wells reminded his fellow commissioners that the board could be held in contempt of court if it does not come up with the money soon.

Fussell said some of Aldridge's statements about shutting down the library or the Extension Service were intended to inflame public opinion.

"I think it's been politicized, all right, and I think that some of Mike's statements were made just to do that. My personal opinion is that it was politicized when he made some statements that he was going to cut this, that and the other so we would get these phone calls, rather than let's look at this thing and say, 'OK, how can we reorganize county government most effectively?'" he said.

The Board of Education's own proposed budget, which will be discussed at a school board meeting tonight, requests $12.5 million in local funding for current expense, $1.7 million in capital outlay and $40.5 million in new school construction from the county.

The school board is not likely to receive those amounts, Aldridge said.

"Obviously, we're not going to be able to fund their request," he said.

However, commissioners might be able to work with the school board to provide what is likely to be an increase in funding above the current levels, the county manager said.

Commissioner Harold Raynor expressed concern over the potential loss of the county's nutrition programs. There are many older citizens in particular who rely on the program for hot meals.

"In my own heart, I don't think I could support taking that away from the senior citizens of the county," he said.

Budget discussions continue today. The Duplin County Board of Education will also meet tonight to discuss the school budget request.