County commissioners in budget talks this week

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Adding benches and bleachers to the park on Red Springs Road, hiring more staff to help with an increased workload in Social Services and buying generators to prepare for hurricane season are among the many budget requests on the table for Hoke County Commissioners to consider.

Hoke County’s department directors met with commissioners this week to talk about their budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. The three-day budget workshop, held Monday through Wednesday, scheduled time for each of the directors to present their funding requests for 2021-2022.

After hearing the requests and making any changes as directed by commissioners, County Manager Letitia Edens and County Finance Officer Ellis Prevatte will present a preliminary budget proposal for the board’s consideration next week. By state statute, counties in North Carolina must approve a balanced budget ordinance before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

The commission scheduled time to hear from 33 different departments over the course of the three-day series of workshops. Monday’s schedule included the tax assessor, tax collector, audio/visual, vehicle maintenance and animal control departments, while commissioners heard Tuesday from emergency management, communications, the library, inspections and elections staff, among other offices.

The departments that typically make up the largest county expenditures were spread out over separate days. Department of Social Services Director Terry Stanton presented the DSS budget proposal Monday, while Hoke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless and her staff met with commissioners Tuesday. Sheriff Dr. Hubert Peterkin was set to present his budget request Wednesday morning, two weeks after a called meeting where the board committed the county to increasing deputy pay.

Commissioners also scheduled time Wednesday afternoon to hear from local community organizations such as the Raeford-Hoke Chamber of Commerce, Maggie’s Outreach and the re-entry council to discuss financial contributions to those entities.

The workshops gave the five-member board of elected officials the chance to hear each department’s budget request for the upcoming year, and ask questions about proposed purchases or new staff positions.

Although vaccines are more readily available and it’s expected that Gov. Roy Cooper will further drop pandemic precautions next week, several county departments continue seeing changes due to COVID-19, and planned their budgets accordingly.

There won’t be Parks and Recreation summer camps for kids this year because the department doesn’t have facilities to hold the camps, Ray told commissioners. Usually the department relies on the local school system’s facilities, but currently outside groups are not allowed on school campuses. Parks and Recreation should be able to hold the camps at the county’s own facility in years to come, once the James A. Leach Aquatics and Recreation Center is complete.

The 4-H program and some other programs at the cooperative extension are in a similar situation. Some events are being hosted online through programs like Zoom. In other cases, it’s become a complicated process to get approval to travel anywhere with the youth participants, director Howard Wallace told the board.

Department budget requests

Some of the requests made Monday included the following:

Parks and Recreation: Director Dr. Sad’a Ray requested funding for new benches at various locations at the county park on Red Springs Road. Currently there isn’t enough seating for people who are out walking or enjoying the facility, Ray said. Additionally, add more bleachers for seating people who are watching games at several of the sports fields.

The department further requested to purchase new scoreboards for the sports fields at Burlington Park in Raeford. The existing boards are not sufficiently visible for people attending to be able to see the score, Ray said.

Ray also gave an update on some of the different local events the department has held or plans to hold, including a breast cancer awareness walk and a “silent party” for children with special needs.

Department of Social Services: With the county’s growth comes additional casework for Social Services, Stanton told commissioners. The office has seen about a 20 percent increase in the number of child welfare cases reported over the last year. The department requested funding to hire three new staff member to help with a wide range of tasks. The new staff hires would handle some casework, conduct record review and help out with the food and nutrition and energy assistance programs.

The department further requested to reclassify some employee positions. The county could receive some reimbursement from the state for certain positions.

Stanton also noted the department is dealing with a shortage of space. Currently the department has to rent storage space to properly house records, because there isn’t enough room in the existing facility. One supervisor has six filing cabinets in her office because there’s nowhere else to put them, Stanton said.

The commissioners suggested potentially buying a storage building rather than continuing to lease space, as a cost-saving measure. Additionally, when the Hoke Area Transit Service (HATS) moves into its own building – another project in the works, supported by outside funding – DSS will have an additional 2,000 square feet of office space.

Utilities: Director Hilton Villines reported on the county’s utilities as part of his budget request presentation. Currently the county’s wastewater treatment plant is operating at about 38 percent capacity, Villines said. The plant’s digester system is currently down, and it could take six to eight weeks to have it repaired due to a high demand and low supply of the necessary parts to fix it, county staff said.

The department brought in less money over the last year because of a months-long, but temporary ban on water shut-offs due to the pandemic. The county resumed water shut-offs due to nonpayment last fall.

The utilities director asked for funding for two new generators to place at stations on Brock Road and Carolina Drive. In the event of a long-lasting, widespread power outage, the generators help the county keep its utility services going for its more than 13,000 water and sewer customers. The county has 11 sites total that need new generators, but the priority is to first install them at sites near the county’s two hospitals, Villines said.

The utilities department currently has a fund balance of about $9 million. Some of that will go toward projects such as upgrading the size of water pipes along N.C. 211 between Raeford and the Moore County line, when the state widens that stretch of the road. The county is also pursuing grant funding to help extend sewer service further into the Rockfish area, with plans to hook Rockfish-Hoke Elementary onto the line.

The News-Journal will have further coverage of budget requests in next week’s issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.