SNOW HILL – A controversial closed session vote to lay off 11 employees and consolidate three county departments into one turned the official budget approval into a contentious debate Tuesday morning.
The vote to consolidate the Comprehensive Planning Department and Environmental Issues Department under the umbrella of the Development Review and Permitting Department took place in a closed meeting during the May 26 budget work session – but after the budget was balanced and all cuts had been made.
The discussion this Tuesday among the County Commissioners erupted before the final budget vote despite the fact that the layoffs were not part of the budget.
One county commissioner said this week she regrets her “yes” vote on the consolidation and lay-offs. Sources say President Louise Gulyas was criticized heavily for her vote by a number of residents, many of whom supported her politically,
“We made some very rash decisions that were made too quickly,” said Gulyas Tuesday morning. “I can’t support the budget. I will not support it.”
Gulyas said she felt the personnel decisions, specifically the layoffs, should be looked at again that afternoon, but that doing so was unlikely.
“This was a decision without a whole lot of thought, maybe, on my part,” said Gulyas.
Commissioner Linda Busick, who voted against the consolidation of the three departments, took the first chance she had to express her opinion publicly to make a lengthy statement about her opposition to the decision from last week.
“Since becoming a county commissioner, this budget process is by far the most difficult task in which I’ve ever been involved, but remarkably at the 11th hour we were able to present a balanced budget with no need to furlough or layoff county employees. This was one of the goals we as commissioners set for ourselves publicly,” said Busick.
Commissioner Judy Boggs, who voted against the consolidation and layoffs, said the budget is clearly not fair to everyone.
“There are obvious inequities in this budget, and the pain is not shared equally, or fairly, throughout the county,” said Boggs.
In her statement, Busick added, “We as a body stated publicly that furloughs and layoffs would only be considered if no other options were available to us to balance the budget. We have not done what we promised, and for that I am grieved. I did not receive one call from residents with regard to the need to shrink government.”
Boggs praised the county staff for their teamwork and sacrifices in balancing the budget by cutting departmental budgets, some by as much as 28 percent.
“After the budget was balanced, to deliberately inflict more pain on members of this team was totally unnecessary and uncalled for, and cannot be justified under a guise of fiscal responsibility,” Boggs said. “The burden of this recession should be shared by all, and not be the burden of a selected few. And the economy, troubling as it is, should not take the blame for bad decisions.”
Recognizing that the consolidation of departments and the layoff of 11 employees are different issues, Busick said she would “reluctantly” vote to approve the budget.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who also voted against the consolidation and layoffs, stayed away from explicit remarks on that matter.
“There are so many things wrong with this budget, yet there’s things right with this budget, and government has to function,” Shockley said. “Is it fair to all concerned? No, it wasn’t. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t.”
Commissioner Bud Church, who supported the layoffs, voted for the budget.
“This was not a lot of fun this year, folks,” Church said. “It’s a budget I think we need to accept and move on.”
Commissioner James Purnell said this budget process was painful.
“I didn’t enjoy what we did because I know we hurt a lot of people in this county,” said Purnell on the budget.
The commissioners can re-address the consolidation and layoffs at any time, county attorney Sonny Bloxom said, including rehiring laid off employees.
“A budget is only a plan. Your financial situation is fluid throughout the year. As things change, you have to change the plan,” said Bloxom, a long-time commissioner.
Referring to a proposed budget category transfer by the school board, as well as public outcry over last week’s closed budget session, Gulyas said she wanted to discuss things in the open.
“I want everything on the table…I don’t think anything should be hidden. Nothing,” Gulyas said.
Busick said the commissioners should re-address the consolidation and layoffs at a later date.
The vote was 6 to 1 to approve the budget, with Gulyas dissenting.
The $173,591,023 budget passed this week is $15.9 million less than last year, an 8.4-percent reduction. All tax rates remain the same.