County Faces Tough Decisions on Budget
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Restoring a proposed 3 percent cut in education funding in the new county budget would require a 1.5-cent increase in the property tax rate for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
That unhappy information was heard during a Thursday budget work session of the Moore County Board of Commissioners. It was an option no one appeared ready to accept.
In an unusually short meeting, the commissioners heard reports detailing the impact of cuts in the county's recommended budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The board briefly discussed the issues but gave no hints that the situation may soften before its official adoption at a June 7 meeting.
"The board is very sensitive to these issues," Chairman Tim Lea said, after brief comments by Sandhills Community College Pre-sident John Dempsey.
Then, after comments by Dr. Susan Purser, superintendent of the Moore County school system, he repeated this sympathy.
County Manager Cary McSwain told the board that once the education cuts are subtracted, the overall decrease to be absorbed by all other county departments and agencies would amount to 8.2 percent.
McSwain presented his budget recommendation at the board's regular meeting the previous Monday. The general fund budget totals $84.9 million, a decrease of almost 5 percent from the current year. The general fund covers the major operating costs of the county and includes the public schools and the college as well as basic county needs.
The total budget, which includes such special budgets as enterprise funds and the airport, amounts to $126.9 million, 15.43 percent lower than the $150 million budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
If the budget is adopted as recommended, the property tax rate will remain 46.5 cents per $100 valuation.
Schools Hit Hard
Already hit hard by cutbacks in state appropriations, the schools must absorb $1.7 million in state funds. The schools also need an additional $600,000 to open two new schools financed with bond funds.
In addition, federal stimulus funds, which helped to prop up the school system last year, will expire in another year.
"It is going to be very difficult for us to absorb this reduction," Purser said. "There is no way we can absorb this reduction without affecting people."
Purser said her office has been advised to expect another 10 percent budget reduction from the state next year. She reminded the board that the schools lost a large number of jobs through budget cuts imposed for the current fiscal year.
She said she and her staff have tried very hard to stick to the facts and not to overreact to the continuing budget crisis.
SCC Faces Layoffs
Dempsey reported that the college will be required to lay off five employees if the 3 percent cut is imposed.
He said the college faces a further budget problem with a projected 11 percent increase in fuel prices.
The manager's budget recommends a $25.5 million appropriation for current school expenses and $711,982 for capital outlay, both from county coffers. McSwain said the schools could expect an estimated $500,000 in average daily membership capital project money from the state.
The SCC request for $4.2 million was reduced to $4 million. The college also has new buildings to operate.
McSwain's budget recommendation hits all aspects of county operations. Employees would not receive pay raises, and some jobs could be eliminated.
Lea recalled that the commissioners, at a recent planning retreat, promised to keep county employees in mind in the next budget, after receiving no raises last year.
"Once again we're asking our employees to bear the lion's share of the cuts," Lea said.
The slow economy is blamed for the financial crunch, with state revenue shortfalls affecting services, appropriations and grants for county programs.
And the county is feeling the full burden of the recession this year, with heavy losses from such major revenue sources as property taxes, sales taxes and interest on investment savings. County officials are projecting a loss of about $1 million from each one of these three major sources next year.
In addition, tax collections are down because of the recession.
The revenue side of the budget reflects the expectation that the county will collect most of the property tax levy.
For a number of years, the county has maintained one of the highest collection rates in the state, usually well above 99 percent. But, to be on the safe side, the budget makers de-pend on a slightly lower collection rate, 98.5 percent.
Tax Administrator Wayne Vest expres-sed confidence that his office would again reach a collection rate of 99 percent.
As of Thursday, the collection rate stood at 98.3 percent for the current year.
Fire Tax Rates
In other budget matters, the commissioners discussed proposed budgets for rural fire service districts, rural areas served either by municipal fire departments or by separate volunteer departments.
Pinebluff and Pinehurst districts are recommended for tax rate cuts. Pinehurst faces a reduction from 0.084 cents to 0.080 per $100 property valuation.
This is largely because of the transfer of the recently annexed Pinewild development from the district to the village. The Pinebluff rate drops from 0.084 cents to 0.083 cents.
Two districts are recommended for increases, Seven Lakes from 0.038 cents to 0.040 cents and Westmoore from 0.057 cents to 0.060 cents.
The new budget year also covers a merged department, formed from the existing Circle V-Vass and Cameron districts to become Cypress Pointe. The combined district is recommended for a rate of 0.080 cents.
All other fire districts' rates remain the same.
The final agenda item was a request from the Ware-Bonsall architectural firm for a contract amendment resulting from a recent board decision to separate the government office building project from the detention center-public safety complex in the contract bidding process.
Ware-Bonsall holds the design contract for the detention center project.
The commissioners voted unanimously to delay action until county officials could confer again with the architects.
The public part of the meeting lasted slightly less than one hour, unusual for most recent meetings. After completion of the regular agenda, however, the board voted to go into closed session.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story