Commissioners contemplate cuts to fund budget priorities

Reives: 'The only thing ...left to cut is their throat'
Feb. 22, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Lee County Commissioners are asking each county department to trim 3 percent from their current operating budgets to fund the board's budget priorities — including fully funding the School Resource Officers program and recently added positions in the local department of social services — for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Lee County Commissioners and a vast majority of the department heads met all day Friday at the Lee County Government Center to begin preliminary budget discussions for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Lee County Finance Director Lisa Minter gave commissioners an overview of how much 1, 2 and 3 percent cuts would impact each department, respectively, along with the cost of several county commission priorities that varied from improvements to Horton Park, giving teachers a 1 percent supplement and covering the increased cost of employees' health insurance. Both documents, in their entirety, are available online at www.sanfordherald.com.

Of the commissioners' 15 budget priorities, totaling $2.5 million, commissioners narrowed the list to the following:

* $667,424 to provide salary and benefits for the 16 school resource officers. The funds would not include vehicles and other capital expenditures, and the funds do not include funds from grants or the Lee County Board of Education.

* $59,549 to fund four positions within the county's Social Services Department, which commissioners approved during their last meeting, to address implementation of Medicaid into the NC Fast program. 

* Funding a 1.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment for county employees at $308,000.

* Covering the 11.4 percent increase in health insurance for employees at $215,000.

A consensus was not reached on providing a 1 percent supplement to teachers, at $375,000.

"We are looking at flat growth on retail sales, and 1 percent growth, maybe, in tax base," said Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack. "That barely covers the health increase cost. So for us to do any funding of the SRO program — the only way to fund that is to make cuts. I mean we have to cut spending somewhere else."

Despite outcry from the school board, the SRO program was transferred to the sheriff's department following the passage of a local bill introduced by Rep. Mike Stone in the General Assembly after a majority of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, in particular Womack, called for the change.

Commissioner Amy Dalrymple said the commissioners leveled the departments during the beginning of the recession in 2009, and that they had little they could cut.

Commissioner Robert Reives put it a different way, addressing Lee County Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks.

"I am of the opinion, Mr. Chair, [that] the only thing they have left to cut is their throat," he said. "That's how bad things are. ... It seems to me these cuts are primarily to fund the SRO."

Despite which governing body was in charge of the SRO program, placing an armed guard at every school would have increased the cost of the program, Womack said.

"Regardless of how we got here, there are some things that are different than when we started," he said. "One of the things that is different is we continue to have, across this country, intrusions into our public schools. In areas no one would have ever predicted. ... So if we are not protecting our children when they are in our care, we are abrogating the very essence of our responsibility. So if it takes us dipping into everyone else's budget to do our top priority, I am not sure we are going to hear any squeals from the departments."

The department heads will not think funding a recreational assistant is more important than protecting the lives of children, Womack said.

When department heads submit their final budgets in March, Parks asked to know if and what essential services would be impacted. Other public budget sessions have not been scheduled.

There was no discussion on lowering or raising the county's property tax rate of 72 cents per $100 valuation for the upcoming year.