A county budget nobody likes

Published 10:57 am Friday, May 11, 2012

The proposed budget endorsed by the Southampton County supervisors has no lack of critics. I have not met anyone who likes it.

No members of the board like this budget! It is painful to swallow and asks every resident to contribute to regain the county’s sound financial footing.

How did this happen?

Two years ago Southampton’s deficit was $500,000. No actions were taken to address the problems, and last year, the deficit ballooned to $2 million. This year it is approaching $4 million.

The main contributors are Southeastern Public Service Authority, reduced state and federal revenues, county sewer and water operations, and the county’s debt service.

Even with the reduction of $20 per ton to the SPSA garbage-tipping fee, we are paying $125 per ton. The national average is about $55 per ton.

Our cost in the coming year to provide this service will be almost $2 million. The previous board discussed adding a waste disposal fee when SPSA’s financial problems surfaced several years ago.

Instead, they funded the increase from the general fund. Now the general fund does not have the money to pay these bills and meet other financial obligations.

Since 2009, the state has reduced funding to local education by $3 million. The county in response has increased local funding by almost $2 million. For the past three years, the remainder of this decrease has been covered by federal stimilus funds, which are gone.

County water and sewer operating costs next year are estimated to be $1.6 million. Revenues generated with some of the highest rates in the area will bring in $1.1 million.

Five years ago, the county’s debt service was $2 million. Today, it has grown to $5.7 million. This equates to a real estate tax rate of 39 cents. This growth is primarily attributable to the Turner Tract Industrial Park, the new Courtland sewer system and Riverdale Elementary School.

I believe these projects were overly aggressive and/or ill-timed. We should have had better planning.

It’s easy to blame the previous board; we forget the debt was incurred for these ventures after the approval of bond referenda by the county’s voters. Even though I spoke and voted against these referenda, I would like everyone to share these debts.

How do we fix it?

I have heard the cries to “cut expenses and not raise taxes.” I have heard the cries of “do not cut my budget or project, just raise taxes.” Unfortunately, this problem is too big to solve by cutting expenses or raising taxes alone and we can’t afford to kick the can down the road.

The majority of the board believes that the proposed budget is the right first step. Everyone is asked to contribute either through budget cuts or increased payments to the county.

The identified budget cuts are significant yet manageable. We have instituted a policy of continuously evaluating how the county is providing services and collecting revenues. All activities will be reviewed to eliminate duplicative and unnecessary task.

Vacancies will be filled only after Board approval, and shared services will be evaluated. The proposed budget contains unspecified cuts/efficiency improvements of $450,000 for these activities.

The county must raise additional revenues to operate effectively. All households are being asked to contribute a $200-a-year garbage fee. While the fee is technically not a tax, the Board has never denied that it’s not the equivalent of a tax increase.

It is only a distraction created by the local press and individuals who apparently did not attend the budget workshops where board members stated this was the same thing as a tax increase on county residents. The fee covers 70 percent of the county’s cost of managing the solid waste program and can be reduced or eliminated as conditions improve.

Various board members have reasons for supporting the fee instead of a personal property or real estate tax increase. Mine revolves around long-term solutions to prevent financial blowups.

It shares the burden among all residents. The county desperately needs to broaden its tax base to take the burden off of taxpayers. Southampton must attract new businesses.

Southampton’s personal property and real estate tax rates are among the highest of the rural counties that the county competes with for new industry. Further increasing these rates puts the county at a further disadvantage in attracting companies and delays permanent solutions.

We wish there was an easier way to fix the county’s problems. Many have offered suggestions. We have reviewed and incorporated some. Some just were not possible.

Many of us ran on no-tax-increase platforms. Unfortunately, we cannot keep that promise. The financial health of the county is more important and the consequences of not acting responsibly are not acceptable.

BARRY PORTER serves the Franklin District on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors. He can be reached at barryporter@verizon.net.