County Looks at Cuts
Cautious about unstable economic conditions, the Moore County Board of Commissioners was in a penny-pinching mood at a Thursday work session.
The commissioners told a gathering of county employees, mostly off-duty law enforcement personnel, that they understand their concerns but hinted that an increase in benefits is unlikely in the new budget.
“This board is going to make hard decisions, some you’re not going to like,” Chairman Tim Lea said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure you keep your jobs.”
Earlier in the meeting, Lea had asked for a show of hands of any in the audience who know someone who is unemployed and cannot find a job. Hands went up throughout the group.
The commissioners leavened their grim comments with praise for the work accomplished by county employees and promised that things will get better once the economy improves.
But in the meantime, the economy remains sluggish. Lea reported that some private companies are turning to contractors to cover employee needs to avoid the heavy costs of insurance and other benefits. And Commissioner Cindy Morgan said that Mecklenburg County faces several hundred layoffs.
So far, Moore County has not been forced to lay off employees, require furloughs or institute pay cuts — measures that have been taken by the public schools, other counties and the state to make ends meet. The commissioners said the county has been able to meet basic budget needs through wise management and careful planning of assets.
“We’re blessed in this county,” said Commissioner Larry Caddell, who pointed out that Moore County is in relatively good financial shape. “We’ve tried to be good stewards.”
Caddell said he sympathized with employee concerns and admitted that many carry out jobs, especially in law enforcement, that he could never do.
“Thank God, there are people like you to do the jobs you do,” he said. “I do appreciate what you do.”
Commissioner Jimmy Melton agreed with the others and pointed out that one reason Moore County is in such good financial shape is the proactive stance taken by the board and the county administration.
Commissioner Nick Picerno said the board is looking at every source to alleviate financial difficulties, including cost-saving measures and seeking grants to cover programs and building needs. He said the board is looking at every possible way to save money.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the least tax burden on our citizens and that you are paid fairly,” Picerno said.
Once the county overcomes these economic hurdles, Lea promised that county employees will receive appropriate compensation.
“You’re our most valuable asset,” Lea assured them.
The discussion followed a presentation on employee benefits by Human Resources Director Denise Brooks, who covered health insurance, 401(k) retirement plans, longevity issues and performance evaluations. An employee committee assisted with her findings.
Comparative figures were presented on premiums paid by the county for health insurance, averaging $583.33 per employee, with employees paying additional sums when coverage is extended to spouses and children.
Brooks said she was not recommending a change this year, but she did describe ideas that might help to cut the cost in the future.
One example would be offering alternate plans — a basic plan and a premium plan, with the county paying for basic and offering the employee the option to “buy up” to the premium plan.
Analysis of employee turnover showed that 33 employees resigned in 2009, including 18 with three or more years service with the county. In 2008, the number of resignations was 34, of whom 26 had at least three years service.
In the initial budget adopted for the current fiscal year, the commissioners put a hold on longevity pay. However, this benefit was largely restored later in the year.
Turnover information was included in the discussion of longevity benefits, and Brooks offered data on the differences between offering longevity raises at a minimum of three or five years. She suggested that the county might include more specific questions to employees in their exit interviews to determine more details about their reasons for resigning.
One cost-saving concept mentioned is an early retirement incentive. An example cited is offering a lump sum payment amounting to three months of wages with an increase in insurance benefits upon retirement by Aug. 1 this year. The county could then leave the position vacant for six months and make some savings, she reported.
The commissioners discussed the report but took no action, pending work later in the spring on the 2010-11 fiscal year budget.
Cutting Board Expenses
The commissioners reached consensus on two other matters presented during the meeting and voted unanimously to accept a purchasing policy proposal prepared by County Attorney Misty Randall Leland and to target some cuts in their own budget for the new year.
Leland described a policy incorporating informal bidding, formal bidding and negotiations for construction, purchases and service contracts and streamlining the process. Her presentation was a follow-up of a study reported to the commissioners at their planning mini-retreat in the fall.
The proposed policy was developed by the county attorney because of the need to comply with state law requirements pertaining to purchasing practices by local governments.
Among her ideas is discontinuance of newspaper advertising for bids, something that would save money. Leland reported that the county could satisfy the statutory requirement by posting notices on the Web site.
The commissioners also discussed proposed cuts in the governing body portion of the next budget as prepared by Megan Owrey Garner, clerk to the board.
Proposed cuts totaling $14,297 include such things as eliminating School of Government Foundation voluntary dues ($8,937), eliminating Chamber of Commerce membership dues, reducing or eliminating payments for the commissioners and spouses to attend ceremonial dinners and eliminating nonessential advertisements.
Melton questioned one suggested option, which would reduce or eliminate payments to clergy members invited to open board meetings with prayer. The county has been paying ministers $25 per meeting, totaling $550 a year.
Lea argued that most ministers do not expect payment for the opportunity to pray for the county. He said many of the ministers give the stipend away and do not keep it for themselves.
Morgan suggested a schedule for a series of water/sewer meetings with municipal leaders as offered by the county at the last joint meeting of county and municipal elected officials. The meetings may be held in May.
At the recommendation of Caddell, the board agreed to move its April 5 meeting to Tuesday, April 6, to avoid a conflict with the Easter Monday tradition.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at (910) 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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