County budget passes amidst fireworks

Published 7:24 pm Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners passed the 2015-16 county budget at Monday’s meeting but not without a few heated discussions, pleas to reduce taxes and several commissioners taking the opportunity to clear the air about budget rumors.

The $57.5 million budget was passed by a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Hood Richardson dissenting.

The meeting got off to a contentious start as Richardson objected to the fact that the public hearing would not be held at the Beaufort County Courthouse, the traditional location, chosen to accommodate more hearing attendees, as well as not being consulted when commissioners were polled as to the choice of location.

“I’m pointing out that this venue is not adequate to hold a public hearing,” Richardson said. “It is illegal to continue.”

During the public hearing, several Beaufort County residents requested the county give back, via a property-tax cut, approximately $4.7 million that some say was over-collected from county taxpayers last year.

“Just give us our money back. We’re certain we can invest in our county far better than you,” said Harold Smith, chairman of Beaufort County Citizens for Better Government, formerly the Stop the Jail committee.

Bath resident Gene Scarborough also encouraged commissioners to consider a reduction in property tax, citing a revaluation done just as the economic recession in 2008 hit, skewing property values too high.

“We all know that our property taxes are at least 30 percent above anything we can sell our properties for,” Scarborough said.

Several speakers expressed dissatisfaction that the county had slashed the county education budget by over $1 million, including a $100 supplement for each teacher to buy school supplies. However, Commissioner Robert Belcher, formerly a Beaufort County Schools Board chairman, made a point to discredit rumors in a passionate statement defending the final version of BCS budget.

“I hate to see people stand up here and mislead people that we have cut the budget,” Belcher said.

Belcher said that both the budget for BCS and Beaufort County Community College had actually been increased 4.5 percent and did include the teacher supplements.

“We gave them about $1.5 million more than we did last year. They’re happy,” Belcher said.

Some additional funding for school improvements — a field house at Washington High School and more restroom facilities at Eastern Elementary School — was removed from the 2015-16 budget, but construction of those facilities are still planned using money previously assigned to capital outlay, Belcher said. Another slashed item was a proposal that the county fund drivers education, a program historically funded by a state gas tax, because the N.C. General Assembly voted to eliminate the expenditure this year.

“That’s not Beaufort County’s responsibility to pick that expense up,” Belcher said.

And it is expenses — those pending in the next few years — that prevented any commissioner from seconding Richardson’s motion to decrease the property tax by 8 cents for the next fiscal year.

“This reduction will return $4.7 million to the taxpayers and the Beaufort County economy.” Richardson said in his motion, adding that the $23 million fund balance expected by the end of the year allows the Board the leeway to lower taxes for one year.

“The money is there. It’s just a matter of commissioners doing the right thing,” Richardson said.

Other commissioners disagreed. Commissioner Ron Buzzeo said expenses measuring in the millions are coming: a new county 911 system, a new tax revaluation, 24/7 paramedic-level service in the county. Commissioner Frankie Waters added to that list major expenditures to schools’ infrastructure — aging buildings needing construction overhauls — for which the county is responsible.

“You pay now or pay later, and we have the funds,” Waters said.

Richardson, in a read statement, also took interim County Manager Ken Windley to task for what he said were “inadequate” and error-filled budget proposals that led to an “excessive” county budget of $57.7 million. Richardson made a motion to send the budget back to the drawing board to cut an additional $4 million. The motion failed.

The meeting represented Windley’s last as interim Beaufort County manager and most of the Board made a point of thanking him for his service over the last six months. Windley was hired for the short-term to fill a position vacated by Randell Woodruff. Former Washington City Manager Brian Alligood is set to take over the county reins at the end of the month.