ROCKINGHAM — With major repairs to the old courthouse and jail hanging over their heads, county leaders agreed Thursday they need to “tighten our belts” on spending for the foreseeable future — a move that’s been forced by faulty financial projections over the last several years and indulgent spending by many departments, with the sheriff’s office singled out among them.
County Manager Bryan Land said that he’s been warning his department heads of the tight financial situation the county is in since his tenure began and four months ago challenged them to cut the annual budget by 15 percent. He said this change is “almost impossible to achieve” because so much of the budget is non-discretionary.
But, he added, the county budget has been slashed by 6.3 percent since then with a goal of reaching seven percent by June 30.
The most difficult areas to cut, Land said, are public safety (including the sheriff’s office), the Department of Social Services, the Department of Health and Human Services, Richmond County Schools and Richmond Community College — which together make up 70 percent of the county budget.
Complicating matters are the fact the positive financial reports from last year were incorrect. Land said those revenue numbers were “inflated slightly” and that this issue goes back over “the last few years.” The county has kept aside at least $2 million as a safety net but has been “dipping more and more into it,” Land said, which has led to the current budget deficit.
“We’re asking our departments to cut cut cut because of misguided information (from) a year ago,” said Commissioner Herb Long.
Commissioners Thad Ussery and Ben Moss pointed to the sheriff’s office’s spending — on everything from staff and new vehicles to new uniforms — as putting undue strain on the county’s finances.
“We’ve always made sure our deputies and our sheriff’s department have been fully equipped, whether it be state-of-the-art radios … new pistols, new uniforms, new cars, we have never — since I’ve been on this board — turned the sheriff’s department away with any request that they have made, but it seems like it’s never enough lately,” said Moss, the lone Republican on the board. “It keeps going up and up and up.”
Ussery said public safety spending is “running wild” while the county is preparing to deal with renovating the jail. He noted that while the county’s population has remained stagnant, the sheriff’s office has increased its staff from 34 when he began his tenure in 1994 to where it stands today at 105.
“That’s a lot of increase when you haven’t had an increase in your population,” Ussery said. “I’m not saying it’s not needed but is it needed to the extent we’re going with it?”
Land said much of the sheriff’s office’s spending is due to requirements that deputies carry more equipment in their vehicles, which means purchasing newer models with more space. But, “the days of buying eight, nine, 10 cars a year are over with.”
“There’s definitely going to have to be some belt tightening,” Land said.
The board told Sheriff James Clemmons of these concerns when he arrived in time for the closed session. When the meeting adjourned, Clemmons expressed gratitude for what the county had provided his department saying, “it’s because of what the board has done (in providing resources) that we’re able to provide for our residents.”
Clemmons and Chief Deputy Mark Gulledge brought a new model of the utility police vehicle, a 2016 Ford Interceptor which the department acquired about a month ago, to present to the board. Gulledge said it was part of the “pursuit package,” and came with the required additional space for equipment and all-wheel drive which allowed the department to have improved handling during the recent snow.
Moss also criticized the practice of having a “safety net” for the county’s spending.
“I think sometimes people concentrate more when there is no safety net there. You let them know, ‘This is what you have, this is what you’re going to have — we don’t have any more we can go get, so you’ve got to make the best out of it,’” Moss said. “I don’t want to sacrifice any service to our citizens — whether it be public safety, schools or whatever, we’ve got to try to keep those up — but at some point we’ve got to say, ‘Hey, you may not need a new car this year.’”
After the commissioners came out of closed session, Ussery said there was no progress made on what to do with the jail or the courthouse. He said in an interview in January that, based on rough estimates of the cost in the past, the county didn’t have the money to do a “total remodeling” of the courthouse and will likely have to make repairs in stages, starting with a cleanup and replacing the windows. Ussery said an architect is again looking into the project, but nothing has moved forward.
“It’s a building well worth saving,” Ussery said.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]