In the crosshairs of the county board’s political agenda

Published 7:08 pm Wednesday, June 22, 2016

In the 2016-17 budget, Beaufort County’s commissioners have demonstrated their uncanny ability to both initiate unnecessary pet projects and to abandon long-standing commitments to the community. Against the objections of the City of Washington and the Town of Aurora, the commissioners have begun a costly reorganization of the county’s EMS system, while at the same time denying Beaufort County Community College the funding needed to provide for the timely maintenance of its existing buildings and equipment.

In 2015, the community college stopped participating in the Federal Direct Student Loan program due to the high default rates accompanying this category of debt. The result was an immediate drop in enrollment of over 500 students. When a business discovers that its services are being purchased by its customers only when free money is being made available, then the business needs to realize that the service is not as important to those customers as was earlier thought. The community college understands this, and is currently retrenching and reviewing its mission. It now sees itself as a facility serving 1,500 students rather than 2,000, and it has secured a $6 million special-purpose state grant as a start on revising the programs being offered in its curriculum. However, the college budget is, for a time, more than ever dependent on the local taxpayer, which puts the community college squarely in the crosshairs of the county board’s political agenda.

The county board exercises significant influence over the community college: first, through its appointment of four of the college’s 13 trustees; secondly, through the board’s control over the local tax support given to the college.

The appointment of college trustees is never a politically neutral decision, and some nominations have correlated with the election efforts various appointees have made on behalf of county commissioners. It is an open question whether these appointments are based on merit or are simply being used as “resume builders” to reward the political supporters of the county commissioners.

The county’s financial support for general maintenance of plant and equipment is another area regularly and arbitrarily subordinated to political expediency, which in the case of next year’s budget has left hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-overdue repairs and upgrades to existing facilities at the community college under-funded.

Why would the county board ignore requests for maintenance of investments that taxpayers have sacrificed so much to put in place? Because ignoring these requests helps incumbents get re-elected.

The 2016-17 county-budget was stuffed with items intended to garner support for the election of incumbent commissioners. Cutting the funding for maintenance at the community college by $500,000 allowed county commissioners to keep their special interest spending in the budget as they campaign for election this fall. Adding insult to the injury was the commissioners’ suggestion that the college should simply violate the terms of its special-purpose grant and divert the grant’s earmarked funding to the maintenance budget.

This is politics as it is usually practiced in Beaufort County: costly, counter-productive, hypocritical and self-serving.

Warren Smith is a Beaufort County resident.