A trip beneath the bus

Published 1:03 pm Friday, July 22, 2016

This June the county commissioners finalized the budget for 2016-17. The total appropriation was $59.5 million and included a small, but much-disputed, $140,000 capital expenditure allocation for Beaufort County Community College (BCCC). The community college contended that this level of funding would not allow it to properly maintain plant and equipment already paid for by the taxpayers and, as importantly, would not allow for cost-of-living escalators needed to keep college salaries competitive with the current personnel market for equivalent staffing positions. The county commissioners not only differed from this opinion, they emphasized that the $140,000 was restricted to capital expenditures and not to be used for salary purposes.

But things changed, and on July 11, 2016, Commissioner Robert Belcher reversed his earlier stand on the $140,000 being restricted for capital purposes only and, with commissioners Gary Brinn, Jerry Langley and Ed Booth, voted to allow the BCCC president, Dr. Barbara Tansey, full use of the allocated funds for salaries or capital improvements or both.

What makes this change interesting to voters is the fact that 2016 is an election year and commissioners Belcher, Brinn and Langley are running for office in a year where taxes have been raised by $2.5 million and record large county budgets are running back-to-back deficits. Therein lies their political dilemma. How to avoid a backlash vote from the families and friends of college employees who didn’t get a cost-of-living raise, while also avoiding a negative response from the general electorate if taxes are raised to fund BCCC salary increases.

The solution arrived at was to put Barbara Tansey on the hook.

By simply dropping the “capital only” restriction on the $140,000 allocation, the commissioners moved themselves into a “heads I win, tails you lose” position. If Dr. Tansey chooses to pay her staff, then the incumbent commissioners can take the credit and claim they held the line on taxes. If Dr. Tansey chooses to maintain plant and equipment, then incumbent commissioners can take the credit for not raising taxes and have Tansey to blame for not giving raises.

Simple enough. What local politicians lack in imagination, they make up for in gall.

Nobody should be surprised that the Beaufort County political process would have arrived at a strategy so simple-minded and completely transparent. But everyone should be outraged that the commissioners have set in motion a situation that will so blatantly pit the college administrators against the college staff. The community college is the county’s single strongest economic driver. Our community needs the jobs and skills that it has provided to thousands of local families, my own included, but the county commissioners have starved it for capital, made a political trophy out of its Board of Trustees and thrown its teachers and staff against the administrators simply to get elected.

This is the political process in Beaufort county: costly, counter-productive, hypocritical and self-serving. Ours is a county board that sees getting reelected as more than enough justification to throw a woman under a bus.