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Southampton board approves budget for public comment

SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors voted April 21 to approve the fiscal year 2022 draft budget to be published for public comment after adjusting the land use fee and hearing discussion on the school budget, water and sewer fees, logging equipment exemption and the solid waste fee.

Lynda T. Updike

The vote to approve the budget for public comment was 6-0, as Berlin/Ivor District Supervisor Christopher D. Cornwell Sr. was not on the call at that moment, though he was present for most of the virtual meeting.

Newsoms District Supervisor Lynda T. Updike made a motion to adjust the land use fee, noting she had gotten a lot of comments about how the initial draft budget proposed to move it from $20 to $50.

“I’d like to recommend that we jump it from $20 to $25 and keep it at $50 for new land use joiners,” she said.

Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison questioned the purpose of establishing different fees.

“I think when a person joins for the first time, there’s a lot more paperwork,” Updike said.

County Administrator Michael W. Johnson noted that once a property is enrolled in the land use program, property owners do not have to revalidate until every sixth year, and that cycle works on the same cycle as the county’s property reassessment schedule. 

“So the last time every property owner who had property enrolled in the land use program was required to revalidate was 2018, and they won’t be required to do that again until 2024,” he said. “So every sixth year, you see a lot of applications coming in, whereas in the intervening five-year periods, there’s only a trickle of applications coming in for new properties.”

Johnson said the land use fee will have no real impact on the fiscal 2022 budget since the county is not currently in that reassessment cycle.

“We’re only projecting like $5,000 in fees from the land use applications,” he said.

In 2018, those fees generated a little more than $32,000, and if the fees went up to $50, it would translate that number to about $80,000, he said.

“That’s the real fiscal impact, but it really has no fiscal impact at all in the current fiscal year 2022 proposed budget,” he said.

Carl J. Faison

With this explanation, Faison said he was OK with Updike’s motion, and the board vote was unanimous.

Faison led off the discussion about Southampton County Public Schools, noting he was concerned about them. He explained how they provided a request for about $14.2 million, and the county’s budget proposes to give them about $1.6 million less than that.

“And with the condition that we’re in now with the general fund and all, I think we can do better than that for the schools,” he said. “I think that I would love to see us just give them half of that, but with the general fund as it is, I would like to see (the general fund) not go under $8 million. So my recommendation is that we increase the proposal to them by $437,780. We could do that, and we’ll still have a healthy general fund.”

Faison said he believes this is one year the county can actually do something for the schools.

Capron District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette said it seems to him that the schools have an ample amount of money, particularly in this year’s budget, and going into next year, there is just a slight increase.

“No more information than we have, I don’t quite follow your request since when the liaison committee met with them initially they said they were going to turn in a level-funded budget and when we come to budget time they want $1.2 million more,” Gillette said to Faison. “That’s a big jump from what they had proposed initially.”

Faison said he did not recall what was asked for in the liaison committee meeting, but he added, “I was just looking at what they requested in this budget, and I have all confidence in the school system that they presented a reasonable budget based on their needs.”
Gillette said that based on the money spent by the school system through three quarters of the year, it could have a surplus.

“They’ve only spent about 60% of the money in 75% of the year,” he said. “So the question to (Superintendent) Dr. (Gwendolyn) Shannon when we met was I’ll split the difference with her, meaning surplus, and they said they’d have to get back with us, and they haven’t done it. So at this point, I’m not inclined to think that a $1.2 million increase is justified, even though they put it up there, I know, with extra teachers and extra funding.”

Johnson said the school division has 60 days after the fiscal year closes to get its bills paid for any straggling bills that are coming in.

“So most of the time, it’s close to October/November before we really know how much funding they would have had leftover in the prior fiscal year,” he said.

William Hart Gillette

Gillette said the way things stand currently, all the board can go on is the numbers it has to work with.

“(The schools) say they have a need, but short of that, there’ve been no projections on possible carryover or the funds that could be rolled into next year if they were returned and then in turn they ask for an appropriation to use them — that’s generally how it would work,” he said. “Surpluses would be turned back, and then they can request an appropriation to fund their needs and use that to lower the number. And that would be in the best interest of the county, I would think, to handle it that way.”

Franklin District Supervisor Robert White said he agreed with Gillette.

“I think he’s right on the money on that, so with the extra money they’re going to get from the lease on Hunterdale (Elementary School), I think they’ll be in good shape,” he said, referencing the school system.

Southampton County Treasurer Cynthia Edwards said it seems like every locality received $3 million for its school system, and it is her understanding that Southampton County Public Schools is going to receive three times that in the next payout to the schools.

“So that’s a lot of funding coming from the CARES Act,” she said. “And on top of that, all the other localities, Isle of Wight and surrounding areas, had a large surplus left from last year, and we haven’t heard anything about any surplus. In fact, Dr. Shannon said there was not one when it was asked by Supervisor Cornwell.”

Cornwell said Edwards was correct.

“Southampton is one of the only localities around that earmarked additional county or locality CARES Act funding specifically for the school system on top of what they got directly sent to them from the state,” he said. “All the other localities had surpluses that they brought back to the board, asked for a reappropriation, the boards reappropriated their savings that they had seen due to being shut down due to COVID or for whatever reason. 

“So they were able to give them that money back, which helped to balance their budgets, therefore they didn’t have to offset any of it with additional CARES Act funding out of the pots that the counties received. We didn’t have that luxury.”

Drewryville District Supervisor Dallas O. Jones asked, “Mr. Cornwell, can you compare Isle of Wight Schools to Southampton? How do we know that they didn’t have something else that we didn’t get?”

“I think the answer is we don’t,” Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards said. “We never received a reply.”

At the conclusion of the school budget discussion, Johnson answered a question posed by Faison at a prior meeting regarding the proposed increase in water and sewer fees. Faison had asked what the impact of this increase would be on the county’s water and sewer customers.

“The answer to that is it really depends on how much water that the customers use,” Johnson said.

For customers using 4,000 gallons of water or less a month, like single people or a husband and wife with no children, the combined monthly water and sewer bills would go from $64 to $66.

For customers that use 6,000 gallons a month, like families with a couple children that are frugal with water use, their bills would go from $92 to $98.

For customers that use 10,000 gallons a month, like families with several children showering a lot and doing a lot of laundry, their bills would go from $148 to $162.

Johnson said someone also asked about the potential dollar value if the county considered exempting logging equipment from taxation. He said the loggers association asked the board to consider that and added that it wanted logging equipment treated like farming equipment.

Farming equipment is not exempted in Southampton County, Johnson indicated, and if it were, this move would have a significant economic impact.

“For all intents and purposes, farming equipment brings in more than half a million dollars a year,” he said. “The logging equipment is $109,000, but I don’t know how to uncouple those two, and that was the whole argument that the loggers association had was, ‘We want to be treated like farm equipment is treated,’ and the answer to that is, ‘You currently are treated just like the farm equipment is treated.’”

The final subject discussed among board members April 21 was the $200 solid waste fee.

“I don’t think any of us want the fee,” Cornwell said. “I think all of us are aware of the fact that the previous board promised years ago to remove this fee once we were able to do so. However, I don’t see any means to that end by anything that’s come before me and the rest of the budget committee to actually bring that fruition. … We do away with the fee, where’s the $1.2 million to pay for the trash disposal going to come from?”

Gillette confirmed with Cynthia Edwards that the trash fee is $16.66 per month.

“In surrounding areas it’s double that per month in most cases,” he said. “I know that all things considered, it’s not exactly equitable in every situation. However, I would hate to see us get in a situation with having to continually increase property taxes if that’s the answer to resolve this issue.” 

Cynthia Edwards said the county thought it would have to raise taxes for the courthouse construction work.

“We found out a way not to go up on taxes and still have a courthouse built, so it looks like to me we can figure out a way to do away with the solid waste fee,” she said. “We figure out ways to work anything else we want to do, and everybody on the board pretty much seems in favor of doing away with the solid waste fee, but talk is cheap. It’s time to do something about it and do away with it, and like I say, you can always put less in the reserve.”

Alan Edwards said he personally thinks the county needs to leave the reserve alone because it is unknown what the new courthouse might create in the way of new costs.

“I think we need to be prepared for that,” he said.