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Brunswick panel begins to tackle 2011 budget

Brunswick County commissioners began their fiscal 2011 budget deliberations Wednesday knowing two things:

Revenue projections, although based on the facts of the recent past, can turn on a tick of the stock market in today's tenuous economy.

Cutting costs is the prudent thing to do.

"Anything can happen," County Manager Marty Lawing said at the opening of an hours-long mini-workshop where commissioners met to set directions on spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In fiscal 2011, the county needs to be creative and courageous, said Lawing, whose recommendations included a hiring freeze and refining a county schools funding agreement.

The county survived this fiscal year so far in apparently good financial shape from a combination of conservative budgeting and rigorous cost-cutting by department heads during the year. Commissioners last year approved an $8.5million cash infusion from reserve funds to balance the current $151 million operating budget, eliminated pay raises and froze hiring for all but public safety jobs.

Still, it has a relatively healthy $40 million-plus in its general fund balance, above the county's floor of 20 percent of expenditures in the account, which should be enough to absorb any surprises in the remaining four months of fiscal 2010.

Lawing's specific recommendations for 2011 were to continue a hiring freeze and extend it to public safety jobs so that staff numbers will be reduced through normal attrition. He also wants commissioners to consider things such as instituting an annual charge for curbside trash pickup, requiring employees to pay a monthly fee for the county's wellness program, auditing the list of dependants employees have listed on their health insurance policies and refining a funding agreement with Brunswick County schools.

And he said that much of the $16 million in capital projects spending planned for next fiscal year likely will be postponed until future years, when the economy hopefully will be better.

"All the sources we're talking with predict a recovery this [calendar] year," Lawing said, "a very slow recovery."

Commissioners for the most part offered no resistance to Lawing's suggestions. Commissioner Marty Cooke said he was concerned about extending the hiring freeze to public safety jobs, but seemed satisfied somewhat when Lawing told him that law enforcement officials said they will make do with a smaller force, if necessary.

Commissioner Phil Norris said that if a trash pickup fee is recommended, it needs to be accompanied by a decrease in the county's property tax rate, 30.5 cents per $100 valuation. The pickup is funded currently through property taxes, and the $10 million a year total bill equals about 3 cents on the tax rate.

Commissioners Chairman Bill Sue agreed that much capital spending will be stalled because of revenue uncertainties, but he asked Lawing to include planned spending on senior citizen centers. The county is looking at borrowing more than $8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for four new centers, a move that Sue said would show the county's large number of retirees that their property tax dollars go for something beneficial to them.

Commissioner Scott Phillips was the only one of the five-person board who voiced an overall goal for the new budget, which Lawing will formally propose in an upcoming budget session. Phillips said his focus is to reduce the size of government, beginning with the commissioners themselves.

Phillips pointed out that the board's expenditures increased over the past year, while commissioners were asking other county departments to slash spending.

"We need to be the example," he said.

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