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Special County Commissioner meeting leads to more questions than answers

By Charlotte Smith

Greg Martin, Bladen County Manager, lead the Bladen County Board of Commissioner’s special called budget meeting with a presentation on Wednesday morning at the Bladen County Courthouse. Martin jumped right into budget challenges the county is currently facing after the group of community leaders in attendance recited the pledge and prayed.

Budget challenges listed in the presentation were decreasing revenues in EMS, Health, and Sales Tax.

“We are still running a deficit of $270,000 for EMS,” Martin said.

Commissioner Arthur Bullock said, “We probably need a 10 year plan for that.”

Martin agreed and reminded Bullock of the five year plan the county has been working on in reference to the EMS Services.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioner’s Charles Ray Peterson referring to the EMS deficit said, “The calls are down. The county and the hospital are suffering.”

Tar Heel EMS did discontinue services last week according to EMS Director, David Howell. The revenue from Tar Heel EMS calls may add to revenue the group noted.

“When the payment structure for Medicare changed it really hurt non-emergency transportation,” Howell stated.

“Look at the outside ambulances coming in the county. Columbus County transport is taking patients everywhere,” Commissioner Dr. Ophelia Munns-Goins shared.

“Why are we buying all these $200-$250,000 trucks if we can’t pay for it?” Commissioner Michael Cogdell asked.

Howell replied explaining the difference in the quality of services each truck provides, the difference in emergency and non-emergency calls and the equipment need for those emergency calls.

Martin explained about the decreased revenues for EMS, “We are down 20 percent in our call volume.”

On to the next challenge, Martin said, “We are experiencing a nine and a half percent decline in sales tax.”

He explained that is about $200,000 to $250,000 decrease in taxes that directly impacts our budget, but the reason for the decrease isn’t clear.

Martin referenced the percentage changes in state articles 39 and 40 to the reason for the possibility of the significant decrease in tax revenue for rural counties.

Commissioners Ray Britt said, “People received a pay increased last year, and went outside our county to spend that money.” Britt explained he spoke with local business owners and the lack of tax refunds this year has affected the local economy.

Increased expenditures causing challenges listed on the meeting’s agenda were employment benefits, fuel and solid waste.

“The Medicare expansion is directly related,” Martin announced as another budget challenge. “It’s a scale that doesn’t do well for us,” he said about the Medicare expansion in rural areas.

Fuel cost is on the rise and it doesn’t seem to be a trend so the county is budgeting for those costs as well, Martin mentioned.

Solid Waste costs jumped up to 21.9 percent year to date according to Martin.

“I think the Solid Waste increase costs is directly related to hurricane clean-up,” Commissioner Ashley S. Trivette said.

Kip McClary, General Services Director, explained Trivette’s theory maybe correct. Commercial waste has increased since September over last year. The household and construction waste has increased as well. We can contribute the increased cost to storm damage recovery, McClary verified.

The county should see about a $57,000 increase from these revenues once the invoices are paid, according to McClary.

Other items discussed as decreased revenues for the county this year were sited to be in the Register of Deeds office, the Bladen County inspections and liquor sales. Commissioners and other leaders voiced lack of property sales and the inspections’ fees being waived due to the hurricane effected the budget.

Economic Development, storm related costs, White Lake water quality treatments were also noted as causing increased expenditures for the county.

Martin stated the half million dollar funds for storm damage and the $900,000 in economic development did come out of the reserve balance.

Martin did reference the county having a strong property tax as a positive for the county’s budget. “We can be thankful for that,” Martin said.

Tax payers have contacted county commissioners about spending funds on water quality. Commissioner Ray Britt said when people call him about paying for White Lake’s water quality he explains to the county tax payers the importance of the residents’ property tax value at the lake.

“People are not shopping local,” Commissioner Bullock said.

Commissioner Ophelia Munns-Goins stated Britt’s reasoning about the lake expenditure doesn’t satisfy her constituents and the thought could be debated. She explained some residents have said they would move if property taxes increase and services for beaver control and recreation are not provided.

Martin presented and explained the general funds revenue and the expenditures five year history reports, the sales tax history reports and a review of the draft budget information report by department. The draft of the 2019/2020 draft revenues, expenditures and capital outlay requested was presented to those in attendance as well.

“We may need to have a conservative budget,” Commissioner Michael Cogdell said.

Commissioner Peterson replied, “We need to do what we need to do, whether it’s conservative or not.”

“It appears we are going to be $173,161.64 under budget compared to last year,” Martin said, “with a total of $2,167 under budget this year.”

Finishing up with the meeting commissioners and county officials voiced more concerns.

Britt touched on two issues he sees the county can improve on. The first he listed was having happy employees to help grow our community.

“Our employees need to feel if they produce more they will make more and you do that by getting the idea to produce,” Britt said.

The second was “crazy quotes and prices” when paying for capital outlay expenses, Britt added.

Martin said, “We do look for ways for consolidation.”

Bullock asked about training for the production Britt was speaking about.

“We need a good training program,” Bullock said.

Terri Duncan, Bladen County Health and Human Services Director stated training has already been set to take place.

“Rest assure the training is being taken care of,” Duncan said.

Bladen County Sheriff said, “When I first started as Sheirff, we spent $96,000, but now we are bringing in a little bit of money and saving the county money.”

McVicker referred to the money savings coming from the inmates performing work for the different departments for the county that normally the county would have to pay someone to complete. After the Sheriff’s statement the group continued with the round robin.

Bullock said, “I would like to see us bringing in more retail and business.”

Peterson made a list of areas of changes he would like to see in the county as: employee pay raises, EMS and vehicles, Sheriff’s vehicles, the county phone systems, and revisit all people requesting vehicles and the training facility.

“We need more money toward the training center for the community college and the sales tax. We are missing it because it’s not completed,” Peterson said.

Martin said work on the training facility is on the scheduled to be completed, but may not be done in this fiscal year.

The group agreed to meet again to discuss more meetings on Monday night at the regular scheduled commissioners’ meeting.

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