06/22/12 — Commissioners OK county budget

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Commissioners OK county budget

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 22, 2012 1:46 PM

"It's just politics. You have got to love it."

With that comment by Commissioner Steve Keen, county commissioners Thursday afternoon closed out what had turned into a raucous debate about the budget for 2012-13 -- most of which came after the budget was approved along party lines.

Keen and fellow Republican Ray Mayo voted against the $159 million budget that maintains the tax rate at 70.25 cents per $100 worth of property and does not include an increase in fees.

Commissioner Jack Best also renewed his call for a school bond issue and commissioners clashed over the best way for them and the school board to meet.

The budget is approximately $1 million more than the current budget because of payments on the Qualified School Construction Bonds being used to finance major construction and renovations projects at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools.

It allocates an additional $250,000 for the county's public schools to offset anticipated cuts in state Low-Wealth funding.

The budget continues the county hiring freeze except for shift workers such as deputies and emergency workers. There is no salary increase for county employees. However, Smith said he is hopeful that continued cost-saving measures in the budget will generate enough to provide a 2.5 percent increase at the first of the year. Commissioners would have to approve the increase.

The budget also continues to exempt mobile home park owners from the $45 per lot convenience fee for use of the county landfill and convenience sites.

Keen questioned several line items, but seemed most interested in more funding for public schools and a need for a meeting between commissioners and the school board.

Chairman John Bell said it was easy for the board to build schools or whatever the public wanted, if county residents were willing to pay for it through higher taxes.

Mayo seemed satisfied that the budget keeps the Fremont Library open, but voiced concerns about the budget's lack of a capital improvement plan -- something that has been a familiar refrain in recent weeks from Keen.

But Bell said he could not understand why there seemed to be such a "hang-up" on a capital improvement plan that was not needed in order to adopt a budget.

Earlier in the meeting, Keen agreed with other commissioners that the county had weathered the recession well. It happened not just because of staff's work, but location as well, he said.

"I can see what we do as a region and east of (Interstate) 95 and Wayne County, Mr. Chairman, Wayne County has certainly weathered the storm," Keen said. "We are certainly going to have to see in the next three to five years on how we can align ourselves with the power that is on the other side of 95. I won't go there because this is not a time or place to go there.

"There are items in here (budget) that I feel that we can move out and shift over to education. I am not going out and talk about a bond. I am not going out there and speculate. I am going to use what is real and what is real is classrooms."

There are hundreds of teachers in the county who have to use their own money to buy classroom supplies, Keen said.

He said school board members have told him technology needs to be funded and more books are needed.

"For $250,000 (extra), I just can't buy it," Keen said. "Not when they came out and asked for a million and somebody or somehow they have been moved down to 250 (thousand) and the commission is sitting here saying, 'This is OK with me.' We need more money and we need to be more teacher friendly."

Bell countered that it is not the commissioners' job to speculate on what the school board wants.

He asked Keen if he also was counting the $18 million the county has budgeted for schools.

"Mr. Smith and (Superintendent) Dr. (Steve) Taylor have been talking and when he needs something he asks Mr. Smith to work it out with county commissioners," Bell said. "That is not one of the areas he has chosen to ask for. So it is not our job to speculate on what the school system needs.

"If the school system doesn't request we are not supposed to go to them and say, 'Look, what about this? Don't you need this or whatever?' When they need something they ask us and it is not our job to speculate on what they need and start handing the money over. That is not being fiscally responsible, in my opinion."

If the school board makes a request and the county can afford it, the county does it, Bell said.

Bell called for the vote and Commissioner J.D. Evans' motion to adopt the budget was approved 5-2.

However, it didn't end the debate, but sent it off in another direction with Best first saying the county needed to consider putting a $60 million bond on the November ballot. That was followed by a confusing twist of motions, a proposed amendment and two votes trying to arrange a meeting between commissioners and the school board.

Best asked Smith to "check out the cost" and deadline for getting a school bond on the November ballot for technology in the classroom.

County Attorney Borden Parker told Best that bond monies could not be used that way because technology does not qualify as a capital expenditure. Sales tax revenues can be used to pay for technology, Smith said.

Keen also asked Smith to look at the potential impact on sales tax when the U.S. 70 Bypass is completed.

Keen said he had a problem with the school facilities plan not being set up as it was in December 2007 through 2012. He followed up with a motion that commissioners and the school board hold a joint meeting within the next 90 days to discuss school facilities for budget purposes.

Bell told Keen that commissioners years ago had made arrangements for Smith and Taylor to meet on such issues and bring them back to commissioners.

"One time the board of commissioners and board of education were meeting together," Bell said. "We met so many times and we never accomplished not one thing with all of those 14 people sitting around the table."

"John, it might be time to try it again," Best said.

Commissioner Sandra McCullen offered an amendment to Keen's motion to have Bell, school board Chairman Eddie Radford, Smith and Taylor to meet.

Keen objected, saying that left the 23,800 people he represents in his district off the table. He accused her motion of showing a lack of transparency. Also, the boards are different than the ones that have met in the past, he said.

Bell told Keen he (Keen) had taken his constituents off the table by voting against the budget.

Mrs. McCullen said the meeting between the chairmen would be a way to start the discussion among the two boards.

Mrs. McCullen, Bell and Evans voted for the amendment. Best, Mayo and Keen voted against it. Commissioner Bud Gray did not vote and following board policy was counted as a yes for a 4-3 decision.

The vote on the amended motion ended the same.