Duplin manager calls county 'unsustainable'
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 6, 2011 1:50 AM
With one word, County Manager Mike Aldridge summed up the situation facing Duplin County.
With the county commissioners preparing to begin work on the 2011-12 budget, Aldridge gave his annual State of County address earlier this month, telling the board that it could not continue down its current fiscal path.
"I debated on that word quite a bit," Aldridge said speaking last week after the meeting, held Feb. 21. "I don't want to throw a wet towel over everything, but our revenue will not sustain what we need to see in way of capital improvements."
Nor, he said, will it allow the county to maintain a safe and sufficient fund balance, or allow it to be competitive with surrounding counties in terms of retaining, much less recruiting personnel.
Aldridge explained that the county has about $53 million in capital improvement needs over the next five years or so -- $2 million in 2011-12 alone -- but that the last few years, the county's capital budget has only been about $200,000.
"Our capital budget is pretty much nonexistent," Aldridge said. "We're not preparing ourselves for the inevitable capital needs we're going to have. You can't defer that kind of thing forever and ever."
Among the big-ticket needs are expected to be school improvements, the county jail and the county's animal shelter.
Other needs simply include the replacement of vehicles and other types of equipment.
Aldridge also said the county's fund balance, down to 18 percent of the general fund, is continuing to shrink as the commission has relied heavily on that reserve fund to make ends meet in the annual operating budget.
"That's a trend we can't continue," he said.
Another trend he said the county can't afford to continue is training employees simply to watch them leave for higher-paying jobs in neighboring counties.
Until unemployment rose the last few years, he said the county was averaging about a 12 to 15 percent turnover rate -- largely, he said, because of its low compensation rates.
But, he said, he doesn't know how much the county commissioners will be willing or able to do in the upcoming budget to shore up the county's financial situation.
A lot, he said, will depend on "thing we don't have control over," like the state budget.
He said he does not know if the commissioners will consider adjusting the tax rate, which currently is 69 cents per $100 value.
"It's going to be up to the board if they want to reconsider that," he said.
District 1 Commissioner and Chairwoman Frances Parks said, though, that she does not believe the board is likely to support a tax increase this year and that they will look at budget reductions -- despite the fact that 40 percent of the county's revenues have been earmarked to go to the school system as the result of a lawsuit settlement in November.
"I don't think anybody on this board believes it's time to raise taxes. I get the feeling we're not going to raise taxes. I think we're just hoping and praying that we can get through next year," she said.
But while she acknowledged that such attitudes are what have put the county in its current situation, she also declined to outline any sort of plan to reverse the trend.
"That's probably what got us in this situation. We just hung on from year to year and hoped we could get through," she said. "We know that someday we'll have to face facts. But we're just going to take it one step at the time."