County’s budget balancing act an ‘unsustainable approach’

* Draft budget eliminates furlough days for county workers
5 % water rate hike proposed

By Kevin Spradlin

Download draft budget (PDF)

ROCKINGHAM — Rick Sago, county manager for Richmond County government, will formally present the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget to commissioners at 5:30 p.m. Monday during a public hearing.

The hearing will take place at the county administrative office building at 225 S. Hancock St. in downtown Rockingham. The commissioners will have one final chance to review the proposed budget during a public work session at 1 p.m. Monday in the same building.

The $48.2 million budget wasn’t easy to put together, Sago told commissioners in his annual written budget message. It was even more difficult to balance.

“In fact, when I received the budget, I had an almost $3.5 million gap to close,” Sago said. “Some of this gap was closed by using fund balance, including transfers from other funds and cuts to departmental budgets.

Using the county’s fund balance, or rainy day fund, has been common practice for county leaders in recent years. It’s also not a recommended approach to providing a balanced budget, Sago said.

“This practice is unsustainable,” Sago said. “We have used approximately $1.6 million (from the fund balance) since the end of 2007.”

County Manager Rick Sago

County Manager Rick Sago

That figure doesn’t included the $1.5 million for the FY 2015 budget, Sago noted.

“More will have to be done in the upcoming year to save money in order to discontinue the practice of depleting fund balance to balance the budget.”

Helping to balance the budget includes a 5 percent water rate hike for the county’s water customers. Sago said the cost of water chemicals and fuel continue to rise and those costs simply must be passed on to customers.

Overall, Sago said, “this proposed budget is extremely conservative and tight. Many departmental budgets have been cut severely, and some organizations have been recommended for funding below what was requested.”

Sago noted he did not eliminate funding for any organization that routinely receives county money.

“I regret that many agencies and departments have not been recommended for all of the funding requested,” Sago said.

However, Sago indicated education remains among the county’s top priorities as both Richmond County Schools and Richmond Community College were flat-funded from the current year to FY 2015, though both entities — if this budget is approved — will receive less than requested.

Richmond County Schools requested $9,419,950 for FY 2015, including more than $7.4 million for current expenses. Sago is recommending the commissioners earmark slightly more than $6.9 million for current expenses and a total of $8,919,950, which includes capital outlay projects.

RCC officials, meanwhile, requested $1,859,514. If Sago’s budget passes, the school will receive $1,770,780. The county’s contribution of $1,505,780 would be less than the $1,594,514 RCC requested but more than the $1,438,390 the school is receiving this year.

Sago said that “it has become increasingly difficult for a county government to fund mandated services, much less service required debt” due to a lag in property tax values. Even so, the county continues to pay on the $25 million in school bonds and on a $20 million loan that helped fund the Richmond County Judicial Center.



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