Balancing Act

Published 9:20 am Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bertie County Commissioners J. Wallace Perry, Rick Harrell, and Ronald D. Wesson (background, from left) listen to citizen and department input during a public hearing Monday night in the Commissioner’s Room.  The Commissioners continue to work on the county’s 2014-15 Fiscal Year budget. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Bertie County Commissioners J. Wallace Perry, Rick Harrell, and Ronald D. Wesson (background, from left) listen to citizen and department input during a public hearing Monday night in the Commissioner’s Room. The Commissioners continue to work on the county’s 2014-15 Fiscal Year budget. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

WINDSOR – Judging by the turnout of nearly 50 persons it had the makings of a spirited evening of citizen input, and it lived up to just that.

The Bertie County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing Monday night here in the Commissioner’s Room to hear comments on the county’s 2014-15 Fiscal Year budget.

County Manager Scott Sauer presented a proposed budget of $31.5 million with a General Fund budget of $20.4 million to the commissioners at their first regular monthly meeting on June 2.

Later, Sauer and county Finance Officer William Roberson found that the money used from the School Capital Reserve fund was not included as revenue to balance the budget, meaning an adjustment to the proposal and a savings.  It also meant that the proposed ad valorem tax rate would increase from $0.84 to $.94 per $100 valuation, or 10 cents, instead of a 20 cent increase as first feared.

“If the Commissioners decide to use fund balance,” Sauer said last week, “it can be done without adjusting the tax rate.”

Commissioners spent the past week reviewing the budget and will continue to do so this week; but prior to the next round of reviews and adjustments the public got a chance to speak out.

Gary Terry, chairman of the Bertie County Republican Party, came not with partisan remarks, but with hopes that there would be no tax increase.

“I think you can do more with less,” Terry said. “I think the county should be living within its limits like everybody else does. In a time when money is short, I believe you all should spend taxpayer money more wisely.”

Bertie County Public Schools Superintendent Elaine White followed and called the education budget, as proposed, inadequate.  While the Board of Education requested $3,526,976 for the upcoming year, an increase of $648,976; the recommendation was funding the district at the same rate as last year: $2,503,000, with a Capital Outlay of $100,000.

“Under your current proposal, Bertie County would be unable to offer any teacher stipends,” White said, adding that 2013-14 marked the first year the school board was able to offer stipends in three years. “This is poor when we look at the surrounding counties who are able to (offer more) and pull the best-and-brightest from our county.”

White also cited, among other things, the loss of the new teacher mentoring program, three elementary schools in need of roof repair, increased custodial staffing and utility expense at the new high school, and the need for a new school bus garage.

“Let me thank you for the new Bertie High School,” White said. “But it can only house high school children and we have to be mindful of the needs of all the children of Bertie County.”

Stewart White spoke on the proposed budget plan that includes the creation and operation of a non-emergency transport program that will require an additional 11 full time and five part time staff.

“You’ve got vacancies for 11 positions, and we’ve got five franchises that are furnishing that service in Bertie County,” White stated. “If we’re going to continue to pursue this, it seems like we would form a committee to see what’s the best unified effort to serve Bertie County citizens without the jeopardy of putting our friends and neighbors out of a position and out of a job.”

Several attendees spoke on behalf of the Special Appropriations in the budget.

Albemarle Regional Library Director Teresa Cole told the board that the library’s Board of Directors voted to fund roof repairs on the current Lawrence Memorial Library in Windsor that were originally earmarked for a new facility. In exchange, she hopes the library’s original fund request would be restored.

Historic Hope Plantation president Turner Sutton defended his appropriation by emphasizing that Hope Plantation supports the education and economy of the county.

Among the others: Vivian Saunders, director of the Family Resource Center asked the commissioners to remember the non-profits, while Sallie Surface of CADA said the challenges her group faces are great, and “they aren’t going away.”  Letitia Hines of the Department of Social Services challenged the commissioners to get out there and see what she and her staff do in their jobs every day.

Patricia Ferguson, a former Commissioner and now with the Bertie County African-American Caucus spoke for several groups seeking Special Appropriations.  They included Roanoke-Chowan SAFE (Shelter for Abused Families with Emergencies), the Food Bank of the Albemarle, both community colleges, and called for parks and recreation activities to be more visible.

“We believe budget priorities must follow a natural pathway in support of an anti-poverty agenda for the county,” Ferguson said.

Donnie Dunlow spoke to the commissioners as a citizen and spoke against a tax increase.

“You’re killing us with taxes,” Dunlow said. “We’ve got all the burden we can carry almost. They say education is a good stem for taxing people…building all these big schools don’t mean a thing toward education.  If you’re not getting the education inside those schools that building don’t mean a thing in this world.”

Both Roanoke-Chowan Community College president Dr. Michael Elam and his counterpart, Dr. Ann Britt of Martin Community College addressed the board with reference to the appropriation for their various institutions.

Elam informed the board that the RCCC Board of Trustees now has a member from Bertie County thanks to the governor’s appointment.

“I’m standing here to let you know today that we delivered,” Elam said. “Bertie faced challenges with its emergency services and we are the preferred provider for those services as far as the training is concerned.  I think we’re the best trainers on planet Earth.”

Elam also said he had toured the old Bertie High School and they’ve looked into the possibilities of offering classes at the facility once it’s vacated for the new school.

“It’s a win-win-win because it gives us a satellite here in Bertie County and gives us a chance to partner to make a better transition and better partnership for education; and that we’re using those taxpayer dollars wisely, effectively and efficiently. Let’s get people excited about learning.”

Britt said MCC was asking only for the operating costs of their facility in Windsor.

“And we thank you for your help,” she noted.

Another former commissioner, Norman Cherry, Sr., along with current Board of Education member Alton Parker addressed some of the criticism by others who spoke at the public hearing on the school budget.

“I know you’re in a tough spot, but education needs another look-at,” said Parker. “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t educate the children of Bertie County you’re not going to need  grade schools and high schools, you’re going to be building more prisons.”

“Regardless of your chosen field, it starts with an education,” said Cherry. “I only ask if you cannot increase the (capital outlay) allocation, at least try to maintain what you have given over the years.”

At the close of the public hearing, Commission Chairman J. Wallace Perry thanked those who spoke and said the budget sessions were continuing.

“I know (they) need what they’re asking for,” said Perry. “We can’t give everybody what they’re asking for, but this board is committed to serving the people of Bertie County, giving them what they need as good as we can and holding the tax rate as low as we can.  That’s a hard job and that’s what we’re committed to do. We’ll take into consideration some of what we’ve heard here tonight and do the best we can to turn out a budget that serves the people and holds the tax rate down,” Perry concluded.

“We’re far from done,” said Commissioner Ronald D. Wesson. “When you see what we’ve done I’m hoping we’ll be able to explain what we did, how we did it, why we did it, and how it helps improve the quality of life here in Bertie County.”

“Just be patient with us,” declared Commissioner Charles Smith. “We’re going to do what’s best for the county, not just one segment of the county.”