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County splits 3-2 to pass budget with pay hike

Staff Writer
A new spending plan for Lincoln County is in place following a split vote by the Board of Commissioners Thursday night.
The board voted 3-2, with commissioners George Arena and Carrol Mitchem in opposition, to approve the fiscal year 2012-2013 budget, which had been modified during work sessions since County Manager George Wood first introduced it.
Both Arena and Mitchem voiced their complaints with the budget during Thursday’s special meeting, but for different reasons.
Arena’s primary complaint was with the merit pay increases for county employees scheduled to take effect in October, which will cost roughly $800,000. He noted that he didn’t think it was appropriate to use deficit funding to allow for the raises and expressed concern with the almost $2 million projected to be used from the county’s fund balance.
The board previously approved an implementation plan for the merit-based system in a unanimous vote during a work session earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Mitchem spoke against the tax rate increases of 1.5 cents for those in the Union Fire District and 1.05 cents for the East Lincoln Fire District, saying the fire departments needed to be held within their means.
He also requested that all fire departments appear before the board with their proposed budgets next year to explain their funding requests.
Commissioner Carl Robinson agreed that the fire departments should be challenged to trim back their expenses moving forward, adding that he had heard from many county residents on the matter.
Additionally, Mitchem stressed that the county would need to make tougher decisions in the future, adding that, in the roughly $90 million budget, more cuts could have been made.
“There are cuts, and then there are true cuts,” he said.
Wood pointed out that they had cut back on the amount of fund balance being used this year and said that any additional cuts would start to impact services offered to citizens.
“We should start rebounding,” Chairman Alex Patton added.
In response to a comment from Mitchem saying he would like to see a budget with nothing taken out of the fund balance, Patton also emphasized that the goal was to underspend the budget.
Voting separately on the East Lincoln Water and Sewer District Fund, Mitchem cast the lone dissenting vote in a 4-1 decision, noting that he was against the tax rate hike of 1.99 cents to 3.55 cents for those living in the district, as called for in the budget.
Following those votes, Mitchem also introduced a motion to freeze all hiring within county departments for a year, though it was shot down by the rest of the board members.
Wood told Mitchem that the amount of overtime pay necessary to account for any lost positions could actually cost the county more money in the end.
The county’s new budget will take effect Sunday, with the current property tax rate of 59.8 cents remaining the same.

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