05/24/13 — County changes mind on budgets

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County changes mind on budgets

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 24, 2013 1:46 PM

Is Wayne County allowing Peter to borrow from Paul again to pay bills?

Wayne County Commission Chairman Steve Keen Tuesday said "no" -- scarcely minutes after making a motion to allow just that -- to take money from another line item to purchase a van to transport the county's equipment for its television programming.

The expense is another of several associated with the county's new public information plan -- including a $7,000 raise for a county employee as well as thousands of dollars in equipment.

The motion prompted Commissioner Ed Cromartie to ask if the county was once again allowing cost shifting.

"It is not shifting," Keen said. "We are not borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. (The money) is already there. So instead of going and grabbing money from your fund balance, and if you have it in there (budget line item), and are not going to use it, then why not?"

Keen's motion to move $14,000 from one line item to another to buy a used vehicle with 108,000 miles on it comes just a month after he and his fellow Republicans on the board spent the better part of a two and one-half hour work session on April 2 railing against the practice.

For years the county has used, with board approval, unspent money in a department's budget to cover unexpected costs or shortfalls in other line items in that department.

Keen and Commissioners Joe Daughtery and Ray Mayo were the most vocal against the practice at the April 2 meeting.

And in a 5-2 party-line vote at that meeting, the board's Republican majority halted the practice, at least until Tuesday.

None of the Republicans questioned the apparent reversal on Tuesday. Nor did Democrat John Bell, who along with Cromartie, voted in April against stopping the practice.

"I make a motion that effective today that we, as a board, not allow any cost shifting from line item to line item for any overruns in budgets," Daughtery said at the April 2 meeting. "My goal here is to stop the shifting, taking from Peter to pay Paul. That we, in fact if we have a shortfall, if we have need for funds, that that department come before us and ask for a budget amendment where we fund it from reserves.

"Is this voodoo economics? I don't understand the principle whereby you are establishing a budget with line items and each line item having a budgeted amount, but all during the year you can move it around like you want to. What good is a budget? What I am saying is that you are distorting the outcome."

However, Finance Director Pam Holt told the board at that time that shifting funds around was a "normal practice" for government.

Tuesday, commissioners strayed from the April ban during the discussion of a budget amendment for the county's public information office.

In accordance with the April 2 vote, the county finance office Tuesday recommended approval of the $14,000 amendment using the fund balance just as it did for the other budget amendments on the agenda.

However, the budget amendment to purchase the vehicle was the only one of the amendments to which commissioners agreed to apply cost shifting.

County Manager Lee Smith said the money would be used to purchase a vehicle to transport equipment associated with filming county meetings and other activities.

In response to questioning from Mayo, Smith said it would be a used mini-van type vehicle that has doors that open in the back. He also told Mayo that his staff had looked at vehicles already owned by the county, but did not find a spare one that would be suitable.

Commissioner Wayne Aycock made a motion to approve the amendment. But before a vote was taken, Keen questioned the source of money.

It would come from the fund balance, Mrs. Holt said.

"I need you to look under line items for capital outlay for vehicles under central services," he said. "I understand it is for the public information office. So this (budget) goes through June 30. So let's look at specific line items that haven't been used and won't be used between now and June 30, and instead of taking this from the fund balance is there enough money appropriated in other line items that we can (use)?"

Mrs. Holt said there was and recommended the advertising line item that had approximately $20,000 remaining.

Keen then offered an amendment to Aycock's motion to use that money instead of the fund balance.

"Are we switching back where we can move from Peter to Paul?" Cromartie said.

"Just this one instance from what I understand," Mrs. Holt said.

"Then we are on a case-by-case basis and let other departments do that kind of thing when it is convenient?" Cromartie said. "Is that what I am hearing?"

Amendments will still be brought to commissioners, Smith said.

"No sir," Keen said to Cromartie. "Since I made the motion I would like to answer the question. This doesn't set precedent in any way. We are in the middle of May. We have six weeks (until the end of the fiscal year). Is this particular department, central services, going to use $20,000 between now and June 20?

"Now if they are not going to use it, the money is there. We have looked at the budget for next year, which we have. We have been told by that department that they are going to reduce their budget because they have been asked to reduce spending. Then it just seems logical that we not move money out of fund balance, but use that money in that particular department."

Cromartie said he had no problem with that, but was just questioning if other departments would be allowed to use the same process on a case-by-case basis.

Mrs. Holt said she would follow the direction of the board.

The vote to approve the amendment and Aycock's original motion were unanimous.