Board debates budget matters

Published 12:42 am Thursday, June 24, 2010

Staff Writer

A proposal to spend $5,000 in county funds for memberships in three local chambers of commerce led to a heated exchange between two Republican members of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
In a straw vote following a public hearing on the county’s budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the board voted 4-3 to appropriate funds for a county membership in the chambers of commerce as follows: Washington/Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, $3,000; Greater Belhaven Chamber of Commerce, $1,000; and Aurora Richland Chamber of Commerce, $1,000.
Voting in favor of the motion were Commissioners Jerry Langley, Ed Booth, Robert Cayton and Al Klemm. Voting against the motion were Commissioners Stan Deatherage, Hood Richardson and Jay McRoy.
The vote followed a heated exchange between Klemm and Richardson, both Republicans, over whether the county commissioners should impose additional budget cuts to offset the new expense.
“The chambers of commerce are the engines that drive economic development for businesses in Beaufort County,” said Klemm, who, under questioning from Richardson, said he would work to find $5,000 in additional cuts to offset the expense of the memberships.
Richardson countered that the commissioners should not vote on the proposal “until Mr. Klemm identifies the cuts.”
The vote came after representatives of two of the county’s three chambers of commerce asked the commissioners for their support during a public hearing on the proposed county budget. The three chambers had asked the county for a total of $16,625 during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, but those funds were not included in the proposed budget presented to the commissioners for their review.
Although the membership dues fall short of the initial request, Austin Smithwick, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Washington/Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, said he welcomed the board’s decision.
“We’re very pleased that the commissioners supported us,” he said.
Straw votes are taken during budget workshops to give direction to County Manager Paul Spruill and other county staff members in preparing the final version of the 2010-2011 fiscal year budget that will be presented to the commissioners for adoption Tuesday.
At next week’s meeting, the commissioners are expected to give Spruill direction on a proposed loan that would ensure repayment of $1.57 million in debts owed the county by the Beaufort Regional Health System on a recent construction loan.
The proposed budget under discussion by the commissioners includes a property-tax rate of 52 cents per $100 valuation for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. It is based on a property tax base of about $5.5 billion — an increase of about 29 percent over the current fiscal year. The revenue generated by three cents per $100 valuation of that proposed tax rate would placed in a “Hospital Debt Reserve.” That reserve would be used by the county to make the hospital’s $1.57 million debt payment if the hospital is unable to do so.
Without that medical center set-aside, the proposed budget just misses — by eight-tenths of a cent per $100 valuation — Spruill’s targeted revenue-neutral tax rate of 48.2 cents per $100 valuation.
After the chamber representatives asked the commissioners to add an additional expense to the county budget during the public hearing, county commissioner candidate Cindy Baldwin of Bath told the board it had not cut enough.
“This is not the time to be adding services,” she said.
Baldwin called for additional cuts in the salaries of county employees to more closely match the 20 percent salary cuts sustained by employees of many local businesses during the economic downturn. And she also called on the commissioners to take a 10 percent cut in the stipends they receive from the county.
In other business, the board:
• Voted unanimously to give the Town of Belhaven the authorization to issue fireworks permits but limited that authorization until the July meeting of the board to give the commissioners time to review of the legal implications of that authorization.
• Approved a $191,064 amendment to a project ordinance governing a flood hazard mitigation grant to raise houses in the county above flood levels.
• Unanimously approved an interlocal agreement through the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for a group self-insurance fund providing worker’s compensation and liability insurance for the county.
All commissioners attended the meeting.