HC budget passes on split vote

Published 9:18 am Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WINTON – Hertford County local government has a new budget to work with, although it failed the overall popularity test.

After months of debate, the county’s board of commissioners on Monday approved by majority vote the 2011-12 fiscal year budget. That new financial spreadsheet was favored by a 3-2 vote following yet another round of debate over additional funding for Hertford County Public Schools (HCPS) and Roanoke-Chowan Community College (RCCC).

Commission Vice-Chairman Curtis Freeman motioned for approval of the new $23 million General Fund budget with Commissioner Ronald Gatling offering a second. The budget included a much-debated $125,000 in additional funds ($100,000 for HCPS and $25,000 for RCCC), all taken from appropriated fund balance, a “savings account” that absorbed an overall reduction in the amount of $1.44 million in order to balance the new budget.

Freeman and Gatling were joined by Commissioner Bill Mitchell in approving the new budget. Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer and Commissioner Howard Hunter III were opposed.

“I’m pleased with the budget overall and the 84-cent tax rate; I’m against the extra funding to the schools and it’s for that reason only that I voted against the budget,” Farmer said following the meeting.

“I’m okay with the budget that Ms. Williams and the department heads worked so hard on to get balanced,” Hunter remarked in the hallway outside the meeting room. “I was against the $125,000 that was added for the schools. My whole thing was that the schools couldn’t prove to me they needed anything above and beyond the four million dollars-plus that we already give them in taxpayer money.”

Prior to the vote on the budget, Hunter attempted for the second consecutive meeting to rescind the $125,000 in extra funds for education. At the board’s June 20 meeting, Hunter distributed information to his fellow board members regarding what the state budget had returned to education after making initial cuts.

“Yes, they are putting back some funds, but they are cutting other funds, such as ADM (Average Daily Membership) money, and money towards textbooks,” Freeman noted in response to Hunter’s information.

“Hertford County’s ADM is down since 05-06, but we are providing $420,000 more (in local funding since that time),” Hunter responded. “In my opinion, for us to go into our fund balance to provide unallocated funds when the state is providing those funds is double-dipping.”

Hunter noted that Hertford County held its new tax rate at 84 cents (per $100 of valuation) by going $1.44 million in the fund balance.

“If this (allocation) continues we’ll be dipping into our fund balance again next year or raising taxes,” Hunter said. “We’ll either wind up with no fund balance to speak of or a higher tax rate.”

He continued, “Ms. (Loria) Williams (county manager) has stopped the unnecessary spending in our departments. I think it’s time to stop the unnecessary spending in the outside entities that we provide funds.”

With that said, Hunter motioned for the board to rescind the extra $125,000. Farmer offered a second.

“I’ll restate the same thing I said at our last meeting….I cannot support a budget that cuts our own departments to the bone and give extra money to the schools and they’re not cutting to the bone,” Farmer stated. “The community college provides a car for staff to drive home and to work. The public schools just purchased a Wii game. Neither sounds like to me that they are cutting spending the way our departments have cut spending.”

“I had made an earlier suggestion for us to table this (extra funds for education) and look at it after we all could see what was in the state budget,” Hunter said. “Right now I feel that money is not needed. We could revisit this at a later date if there was a need.”

Williams said in each of the last three years, the county has lost $700,000 in revenues.

“You’ve got to find ways to recover that; you’ve decided to hold the tax rate so I have cut departments tremendously and some of it is not necessarily good,” she noted. “Until the economy picks back up; until the tax collection rate picks back up, that’s when you’ll see a more conducive environment for employees to be more satisfied in what they do and how they do it.”

“Are we depriving any of our departments of what they need to operate,” asked Gatling.

“They would love to have more flexibility to do their jobs better, but the answer is no to being hampered or hindered from performing their jobs,” Williams answered.

“The $125,000 that has been talked about in this boardroom, has that affected our departments as far as what they get or don’t get with this budget; whether or not our employees get raises or not,” Freeman inquired.

“No sir,” Williams answered.

“How far would that $125,000 go as far as giving our county employees a raise this year,” asked Hunter.

“A two-percent raise across the board would cost in the range of $126,000 to $128,000,” Williams said.

Farmer said there was a list of 15 items – including shelving, computers, printers – requested by the department heads that were never looked at due to budget constraints.

“Our departments have needs that we didn’t even look at and denied others that we did look at so we could hold the tax rate at 84 cents and then we take that money we are saving in cuts and give it to someone else,” Farmer stressed.

“We made some tough decisions to stay at 84 cents; fund balance was at a level that we could look at that, but not forever,” Williams said.

Hunter’s motion to rescind the $125,000 in extra funds was defeated, 3-2. He and Farmer voted to rescind the funds with Freeman, Gatling and Mitchell opposing the motion.

The new budget ($23,000,773 in the General Fund) will be built on a foundation supported by $10.36 million in ad valorem taxes, $3.6 million in restricted intergovernmental DSS funds, $3.17 million in sales and use taxes, $1.15 million in vehicle taxes and nearly $1.45 million from appropriated fund balance.

The lion’s share of the funds will go to human services ($6.76 million highlighted by over $5 million to DSS), education ($5.98 million, including $4.17 million to HCPS in current expense funds and a combined $870,000 in capital outlay and special appropriation) public safety ($5.4 million, including a combined $3.5 million for the jail and sheriff’s office) and general government ($2.88 million).

The budget contains no increase in user fees for the Northern and Southern Rural Water Districts. There is a slight increase in the tipping fee at the landfill.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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