Budget review ends

Published 12:31 am Thursday, June 9, 2011

Workshops on county budget conclude with $128,887 tentative cuts

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday wrapped up its review of the proposed county spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

Commissioner Hood Richardson takes notes Tuesday during the final budget workshop held by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners. (WDN Photo/Betty Mitchell Gray)

After four budget workshops and more than 10 hours of debate during which the commissioners held a sometimes line-by-line review of County Manager Paul Spruill’s $50,945,552 spending plan for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, county leaders have identified $128,887 in proposed cuts.

The cuts, determined by straw votes, are tentative and, to date, represent a reduction of about one-fourth of 1 cent in the county manager’s 5-cents-per-$100-valuation tax increase recommended for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

In those straw votes, the commissioners have agreed to eliminate funding for several Beaufort County nonprofit organizations and cut funds for a regional library and a museum in Belhaven, among others.

In an interview with the Daily News on Tuesday, leaders of these nonprofit groups said the cuts would have a devastating effect on their operations.

The commissioners also agreed to $38,234 in funding cuts for the Beaufort County’s Sheriff’s Office.

The most recent of those cuts came Tuesday night when the board voted 4-2 to eliminate $19,000 in incentive funds for those officers who pass a required fitness test. Commissioners Ed Booth and Jay McRoy cast dissenting votes.

A review of the budgets for the county’s human services, public safety and economic development agencies Tuesday generated little additional savings in the county’s 2011-2012 budget, but it raised questions among board members about some of those agencies’ operations.

The panel voted 5-1 to ask for an accounting of income from other groups earned by Tom Thompson, the county’s economic development director, after questions were raised by Commissioner Hood Richardson. McRoy cast the sole dissenting vote.

“His primary duty was to work for Beaufort County,” Richardson said. “Does he have income from other sources? This is a matter that needs to be cleared up.”

And questions also raised by Richardson over the use of unmarked cars and unmarked license tags by the sheriff’s office led to more than one heated exchange between Richardson and Chief Deputy Harry Meredith during Tuesday’s meeting.

“He’s the elected sheriff, and he can do what he wants to with those cars,” Meredith responded to a question from Richardson about marked and unmarked cars.

“Every car that’s out there, the sheriff can’t do as he pleases,” Richardson answered.

The county commissioners can “dock your budget $10,000 for every car that should be marked that isn’t marked,” he said.

Meredith answered: “That would be punitive to the citizens of Beaufort County.”

The debate was gaveled to a close by board Chairman Jerry Langley, who said, “We’re not going anywhere with this one.”

Escaping the budget ax for now is funding for the Beaufort County Schools, although county leaders signaled Tuesday that cuts are likely to be made before the county budget is approved.

Langley on Tuesday expressed disappointment with the reaction by school leaders to the effects of various “what-if” budget scenarios on the county’s public schools.

After running a couple of what-if scenarios regarding funding for Beaufort County Schools past BCS Superintendent Don Phipps at a budget workshop last week, the commissioners asked Phipps and the Beaufort County Board of Education for more information on how those “what-if” scenarios would play out.

Langley asked Phipps what would happen if the $937,860 proposed for capital projects was cut by $500,000. And he asked Phipps what would happen if $500,000 were cut from the proposed $12,320,150 for operating costs.

School board members on Monday declined to respond to Langley’s “what-if” scenarios saying instead that they could not cut the county school budget for the 2011-2012 any more than they already have without hurting the quality of education the county’s children receive.

At a meeting called to discuss the school system’s spending plan for the coming year, the school board voted 7-1 to not identify any additional cuts to their budget over those made by Spruill in his recommended spending plan or respond to Langley’s request.

“As a governing board … we’re going to have to do some things, and I would rather that we had done them together,” Langley said. “I see now it’s just not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, Richardson said Tuesday that he would work to ensure that the commissioners have a greater control on the school system’s budget in coming years.

“It’s time that we start managing the school board in a business-like way,” he said.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 20, at a location to be announced.

Commissioner Stan Deatherage was absent from Tuesday’s workshop.