Commissioners Get Update On Budget Ordinance

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The Harnett County Board of Commissioners got one last update on the proposed budget ordinance for fiscal year 2018-19 during the workshop session Tuesday morning.

In her budget message, county manager Paula Stewart laid out some of the highlights of this year’s ordinance.

At the top of the list was a request to leave the current ad valorem tax at 75 cents per $100 of valuation on property and called for no appropriation of fund balance. With that in mind, she reported to the commissioners the budget itself has been cut by 10 percent from fiscal year 2017-18 primarily due to lower than expected sales tax revenues and lower than expected intergovernmental revenues.

Mrs. Stewart reported to the commissioners the proposed budget takes into account the needs of all areas and does it responsibly.

“The proposed budget seeks to address a number of priorities established by the board in the areas of education, public safety, employee training, customer service, capital maintenance and cultural/recreational efforts, while doing so in a fiscally accountable manner.”

The majority of the budget discussion during Tuesday’s session revolved around funding for the board of education. The board of education sought just over $3.5 million be set aside for capital outlay and requested just over $66 million for new school construction.

Under the estimated proposal, the school board will receive an allocation of around $22.9 million for its budget. That includes capital outlays and current expense funding.

As far as the request for new construction funds, Mrs. Stewart said in her budget message it would be best to await the decision on a statewide school bond issue in November.

“Our financial advisers have suggested that we will need to increase the county’s ad valorem tax rate in the near future in order to address these needs,” she said. “It would be prudent to wait on the results of the statewide school bond issue since its passage would lessen the local burden for the new debt. Article 46 sales tax (one quarter of a cent sales tax) only covers a portion of the current debt for the new Benhaven Elementary School.”

As far as increased security measures requested by the school board, Mrs. Stewart suggests in the proposal the commissioners consider a separate allocation at a later time based on the findings of the N.C. House Select Committee on School Safety. The committee is chaired by Dunn Rep. David Lewis and Rep. John A. Torbett. The budget does allow for priority security measures to be undertaken using a portion of the proposed capital and current expense allocations.

“We just need to wait on security funding,” Mrs. Stewart told the commissioners. “I recommended we pull it out of the budget request until we get further information. We are working on it, we are not ready to allocate money to it yet and the schools are not either.”

Aside from budget discussions, the board was asked by Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats and county attorney Monica Jackson to provide the board’s input on what was titled Government Agency’s Standing Response to Waiver/Remission of Court Costs and Fines.

The discussion centered around a new wrinkle in the criminal justice system. Formerly, judges had — and according to Ms. Jackson, will retain — the ability to suspend fines against criminal defendants.

In Harnett County, the fines are given to the board of education and any fees collected are allocated to the sheriff’s office.

Ms. Jackson said all stakeholders have the right to object to such actions by a judge.

Without a standing objection on record, the county would have to provide an attorney at every proceeding to object to any fines being waived.

“It would be the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office and the board of education,” she said. “It gives the stakeholders the opportunity via this piece of paper that we either have a standing objection to any judge waiving court costs and fines for indigent defendants or we don’t care. Let the judge decide where the judge has discretion.”

Because the sheriff’s office is affected, the commissioners must make the final decision on whether or not to maintain an objection.

“It is primarily the sheriff’s decision to make,” she said. “However, it does impact funding which involves the board as well.”

Commissioners opted to wait for more information as to the amount of funding the sheriff’s office actually receives — or could possibly lose — from the situation.

“In theory, for us to waive this is for the sheriff to walk away from certain money he would otherwise be entitled to,” she said. “And if he walks away from this money, that’s theoretically more money you’ll have to give him at budget time.”

Regardless of the commissioners’ final decision, the objection is just that, an objection. It in no way can prevent a judge from waiving fines and fees.

“As far as what little bit the sheriff’s office gets from it, it’s not a big deal to me,” Sheriff Coats said. “As far as what it does to the county, and we don’t have these numbers, I’d be hard pressed to sign anything until we know what amount of money we’re talking about. I want to do what’s best for Harnett County.”

The commissioners will meet in their next regularly scheduled session Monday night at 7. At that time, a public hearing will take place on the budget ordinance prior to the commissioners making their final decision about passage.

There will also be a public hearing and subsequent vote on passing Harnett County’s fiscal year 2018-19 Water and Sewer System Development Fees. Harnett County Public Utilities Director Steve Ward will be present as will Steven Miller with W.R. Martin Management Consulting.

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