06/08/10 — Duplin County's spending plan includes employee raises

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Duplin County's spending plan includes employee raises

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on June 8, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County property tax rate will remain at 69 cents per $100 valuation, and many services once on the chopping block are funded in the 2010-11 proposed budget, residents learned Monday night at a county public hearing.

County Manager Mike Aldridge presented the budget, which seeks to use $3.3 million from the fund balance to run departments, programs and services, a step commissioners had hoped earlier in the year to avoid.

Money is budgeted to operate the county library, museum, forestry service and parks and recreation. The county will provide $137,000 of the requested $220,000 in local funding to the airport, which largely depends on other funding sources.

The county proposes to fund Duplin County Schools at the same level as the last fiscal year, providing $7,727,528 in local funding for current expense and $347,300 for capital outlay, for a total of $8,074,828. The school funding also included $1.24 million in capital outlay for transfer to debt service, for a total of $1.5 million in the capital outlay category.

The school board requested $9.2 million in current expense funding and $1.7 million in capital outlay for the 2010-11 school year.

The county will not use fund balance money to pay the $4.8 million lawsuit judgment, Aldridge said. The school board's finance officer has received a copy of the proposed budget, he added.

The county's proposed budget includes a 2 percent salary increase for full time county employees, in addition to longevity pay for employees with 10 years or more of service. The total cost of salaries and benefits in the general fund is $23.5 million, accounting for nearly half the county's budget.

Duplin County's employee pay plan has remained unchanged since 2006, and should be adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation and competing labor markets, Aldridge said.

"It creates problems" when the county does not increase the pay plan, he said.

Other items included in the proposed budget are $4.3 million dedicated to the county emergency services, funding to purchase six Sheriff's Office patrol cars and $224,424 to Eastpointe mental health services. The county EMS will continue to operate eight paramedic sites with eight transporting units during the day and seven transport units and one paramedic response vehicle at night.

The budget currently includes $380,956 to run the Duplin Events Center as a county-operated building. That amount includes funding for one contracted director and two full-time employee positions with benefits. The county predicts the center will operate at a net loss of $242,956 in 2010-11, with an estimated revenue of $138,000, but that is dependent on what events the county staff can attract to the facility, Aldridge said.

"Basically, we've come full circle to where we were," he said.

Some services were removed from the proposed budget. The county will not fund the Sheriff's Office substation in Calypso, and Sheriff Blake Wallace was reportedly seeking funding from the town of Calypso to keep the station open.

The county's contribution to James Sprunt Community College was budgeted at the same level as 2009-10. The $1,362,585 current expense funding is "substantially less" than what the college requested, according to the budget summary.

The county chose to take the current economic climate into consideration when projecting revenues for the budget. Added expenses, including a $293,000 increase in how much the county must contribute to the employee retirement, and increases in the cost of health care put additional strain on the county finances, Aldridge said.

To help control the increasing costs, the county's 2010-11 budget increases employees' co-pay, deductible and pharmacy to maintain the current health insurance premiums.

"We're putting the squeeze on employees by doing it this way, unfortunately," Aldridge said.

Income from motor vehicle taxes is predicted to be down by 8.7 percent this year, and the county budgeted $2.2 million for the revenue this year. In comparison, the county budgeted $2.3 million for motor vehicle tax revenue in 2005-06.

"You can tell what's happened there. People are not buying (cars) like they were," Aldridge said.

The estimated net ad valorum and motor vehicle tax revenues combined are expected to be up by $120,972 from last year. Sales tax revenues are budgeted at the same level as 2009-10.

The county predicts a 96.48 percent collection rate for ad valorum taxes and a 79.45 percent collection rate for motor vehicle taxes in 2010-11.

Several people spoke at the public hearing, expressing concern that the county did not make deeper cuts in the proposed budget, while some non-profit representatives requested more funding for their organizations.

Resident Jack Zesh encouraged the commissioners to engage in "benchmarking" by examining how other counties conduct business and using that information to put improvement plans in place. But the county must look harder at finding ways to reduce costs, he said.

"When I look at numbers like this, it's a rocket ship," Zesh said. "I just don't understand how the county can afford it."

He also disputed the reasoning for providing an across-the-board 2 percent salary increase, and called into question why the county does not work off of a "head count" of its employees.

"Why don't we even see them? I don't understand that," Zesh said.

Resident Mike Rutkowski also commented on the county's expenditures, noting that the 2010-11 budget operated on last year's proposed budget and not the actual spending figures.

"There has to be a baseline. I don't see that baseline," he said.

The county cut its funding of the vocational rehabilitation program to $7,027 from the requested $25,455, a reduction that a representative warned could mean the loss of matching federal funds. The board also did not fund several out-of-county non-profits agencies seeking contributions.

The county's audited fund balance as a percent of expenditures as of June 30, 2009 was 22.55 percent. Assuming budgeted revenues and expenses are realized, the fund balance at June 30, 2010 is expected to be approximately 17 percent.

The proposed budget will not become official until the commissioners vote to approve it. Adjustments may still be made until that point, and the commissioners may amend the budget after it is approved. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget at its June 21 meeting.

Commissioner Zettie Williams was unable to attend due to health reasons but participated by conference call. Commissioner David Fussell was not present at the meeting.