County to Look at Staff Vacancies for Savings
by John Lentz
Moore County Commissioners have asked County Manager Cary McSwain to re-examine the proposed budget and see if any vacant positions can be eliminated to save money.
Commissioner Nick Picerno, who has helped develop the spending plan for the coming year, expressed dissatisfaction with several areas of the budget during a hearing on the subject Thursday night.
Commissioners' Chairman Larry Caddell, Commissioner Tim Lea and Picerno were present for the special meeting, held at the Agricultural Center in Carthage. Commissioners Jimmy Melton and Craig Kennedy were absent.
Picerno said he had a particular problem with the areas in which spending cuts were occurring.
"What bothers me is that spending needs to be prioritized," Picerno told McSwain, who presented the budget May 1. "I believe that public education should have high priority in funding, as well as law enforcement, but over the past few years law enforcement has seen the largest cuts. A lot of the cuts that Cary has given us tonight are in that department, so I have asked the county manager to go back and take another look at this issue."
Picerno said that vacant job positions in the county system are one area in which McSwain could implement cuts.
"We don't want to fire anyone or lay off anyone, but I was shocked to see the number of vacancies there are in the system. Now would be a good time to scrutinize which positions could be eliminated."
A county employee in the audience stated that there were 27 vacant positions in the county, while Lea said his understanding was that there were 35.
"I take responsibility for this (misunderstanding about budget priorities)," Picerno said. "I didn't give him (McSwain) very good direction."
Each of the three commissioners talked briefly to the more than 30 county employees and others who gathered to hear the budget presentation.
Addressing the county employees present, Caddell called himself "the eternal optimist."
"As a business owner, I never laid off employees or cut their salary or benefits. I was blessed to be in that position. As a commissioner, I have always felt that you deserved good government, which is why I have decided to stay for 23 years. You should have people sitting on this board who are conservative and take care of your money, but times are tough. Our goal was to try to hold the line on the budget and not have a tax increase, and we will try to do the best we can."
Lea said that budgets "are tough, sensitive, and impacting. Whatever road we take, it impacts peoples' lives.
"Washington, D.C., has a $16 trillion debt, and Moore County is doing the same thing with the debt that we are accumulating," he said. "A lot of county employees say they are concerned about what the county manager is doing with the budget and with their health care benefits, but not one time has a county manager ever approved a budget. That lies with the county commissioners. It's a nice political move because he gets hit instead of us. But you should talk to us rather than the county manager, because that's our responsibility."
Lea, who is stepping down from the board later this year, said that the commissioners will have to make "some really hard decisions" over the next few years.
"The board will have a lot of debt to deal with in the coming years," he said. "So that everyone understands, there is debt in many areas, including water, schools, the new detention center and more. Adding or expanding the new detention center could cost $20 million that would increase to $40 million with interest. The school system will soon need either a new high school or an expansion of the three existing high schools at a cost of $45 million in principal and $60 million with interest.
"We're going to be responsible for another $100 million for future water needs. If we agree to the Robbins water proposal, we're looking at $29 million for Phase I and Phase II capital costs, which means $40 million with interest. We're looking at over $200 million, and the public needs to know that."
Picerno said that he found comparing Moore County government with the federal government "offensive."
"There's a big difference between Moore County government and Washington, D.C.," he said. "They're accumulating debt in D.C. while we're paying down. We're not borrowing money. Our budget is balanced."
No formal action was taken regarding the budget at Thursday's event. Another hearing will be held at an as of yet undetermined date.
Contact John Lentz at (910) 693-2479 or jlentz@thepilot. com.
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