ROCKINGHAM — Two candidates running for re-election to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners have admitted at a public forum that they were blindsided during budget negotiations earlier this year when the board learned it had much less money to spend than it had thought.
In response to a question from an audience member at the Ashley Chapel Community Center on Thursday night, Commissioners Don Bryant and Herb Long blamed former County Manager Rick Sago for giving them false revenue projections, with Long suggesting that Sago abruptly retired after commissioners began asking questions.
It was only after Bryan Land took over the position, the two men said, that they gained a true picture of county finances.
Sago resigned Aug. 1, 2017. Land, a former assistant county manager, took over in November.
“Possibly we should have caught it,” Bryant said in a phone interview Friday of the poor projections. “You have to count on your county manager to tell you what’s good and bad, and you go from that.
“I’m not a person that goes through the books because I’m not even sure what I would be looking for.”
Bryant said at the forum that Sago “falsified” figures he gave to the board, but on Friday clarified that he wasn’t implying that Sago had lied intentionally or embezzled — just that he “really overshot” the revenue from vehicle taxes.
Ultimately, the commissioners moved to balance the budget by approving a 4-cent countywide tax increase for the current fiscal year and by asking all county departments to cut their budgets 15 percent.
Long could not be reached for comment Friday.
When reached by email Friday, Land did not respond to questions about his knowledge of the flawed projections and the circumstances surrounding Sago’s departure, saying only that county revenues had been stagnant for years while expenditures continued to mount.
“The bottom line is, when balancing a budget, the equation is very simple: revenues must equal expenditures,” Land said.
“The majority of this growth in expenditures can be attributed to the county adding additional departments and employees … Many of our other 30 plus departments have grown exponentially as well over the years.
“Additionally, we have been very generous in rewarding our employees for their dedication to Richmond County government.”
Commissioner Ben Moss, who did not attend the forum Thursday — he said he was called in to work late that night — said he learned of the county’s tenuous financial situation just before beginning work on the fiscal 2018-19 budget in February.
Should commissioners have anticipated a problem before then?
Moss said commissioners are supposed to “look through” county financial records in order to gauge the county’s standing and make decisions about how it is spent, but they aren’t supposed to “babysit” the county manager.
When asked whether Long’s suggestion that Sago retired immediately after the board discovered he had offering poor projections, Moss said he had joked with Sago for months previously about when Sago would be ready to retire and that the timing was nothing out of the ordinary.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m out of here,’” Moss said. “Rick is an excellent guy. … Did he make mistakes? We all do.
“I hope he enjoys his retirement.”
Below is a transcript of the relevant portions of the forum, which followed a question by Cameron Hairston, an employee of County Commission challenger Tavares Bostic. On Friday, Bostic said Hairston’s attendance at the forum and the question she asked were done on her own, saying she was there “as a citizen like everyone else.”
“In no way did I encourage her (to ask that question),” Bostic said. “She’s a smart women; she can ask her own questions.”
Bryant: First of all, there’s no missing money. A lot of things — what happened, if you go back, we reduced taxes. There was a couple of us that said we shouldn’t do it, but we were overrode, and so we actually reduced taxes, and I thought we needed to save it for later on.
So all of a sudden, you’ve got so much money you work with and you’ve got to make sure you divvy it out, so that’s what (Land) started cutting.
Now, Bryan has really done an excellent job. I trust him 100 percent, but there’s no missing money. Money was appropriated, we tried to do the best we could for every department. No one department was taken for granted, so everybody worked together, and they came to it with a budget cut so we could meet it without raising the taxes more than what we did. And what we’ve got to do is bring our tax base up.
Hairston: That didn’t exactly answer my question because we’re still speaking about current. I’m talking about previously. And it goes to (a previous) question about how to prevent it from happening again.
So prior to our current county manager, when there was a discrepancy in the budget, how was that missed for so long?
Bryant: The only thing that I could (even) say (is) that we were falsified that we were better off than we were, OK? So we were maybe given some false numbers.
If you go back and look, we were supposed to be getting so much money from the sale of cars, if I remember correctly. It was projected more than we got. He had beefed it up a little bit more than we should have. We were looking at what we thought were the right numbers that were not.
Once again, we had to make adjustments to get back (unintelligible). But it’s fine.
Long: Dittoing Commissioner Bryant’s statement: There’s no physical money missing or have ever been missing, ever.
We did cut taxes about two, three years ago, 2 cents, I believe.
And then when our budget was submitted to us, there was an income in the budget that our previous manager submitted and he had in there tax revenue, and it was way up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I point-blank asked him, “Man, where are all these people going to move to in Richmond County to get all this 570-something thousand dollars in taxes you say we’re going to get?” And he said, “Well, let me do some research on that and get back with you.” Never heard a word.
Hairston: So the spreadsheets were wrong?
Long: That’s right. The numbers he put in there were totally wrong, so whenever we caught it, he announces his retirement.
We’ve got a new manager in there today — good guy. He wanted us to continue using (Sago) as a consultant — we didn’t want any part of it. And we didn’t.
You know I’m saying some things here — I’m just being blunt. That’s just the way it — we didn’t want to have anything, or I didn’t, to do with him. Period.
But to put you at ease, there was never ever any money missing. So we had a tax increase, as you know, we had to do that to get caught back up to the false numbers that was presented to the commissioners. That’s what my statement earlier was: we were misled. It’s that simple.
Bryant: You have to remember, when you do a budget like a church, you really don’t know how much money you’re going to get that year. You assume, so we were assuming this was the budget, and it wasn’t there.
Long: Going forward, the manager we have today, he knows that the present commissioners and anyone who comes on board is going to be watching him like a hawk. We’re going to hold him more accountable.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]