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Days after adopting budget, Columbus County confirms it may not be able to afford approved expenditures

Upcoming audit will clarify how much money county has in fund balance
Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 12:46 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Long-time Columbus County Commissioner Buddy Byrd says the county may have approved line items in the recently approved budget it can’t afford to fund.

“I was told by a fellow commissioner [Tuesday] that we may have to draw back 5% in some areas to get back to the minimum fund balance the state requires for a county to operate,” Byrd explained. He said that because commissioners had allowed their fund balance to dip so low, they were also in jeopardy of having to pay a higher interest rate to finance the construction of a new school in Tabor City.

Before the vote to approve the 2021-2022 county budget Monday night, Byrd expressed concerns about the amount of spending in the proposed budget.

“I just feel like there’s too much money somewhere in the budget for it to go from $73 or $74 million to $81 million,” Byrd told WECT Wednesday, noting that they only have access to the additional funds because of the recent revaluation that raised property tax values for residents across the county.

Columbus County’s property tax rate is 80.5 cents per $100 of property value. After a revaluation that raises the property tax base, commissioners will sometimes lower the property tax rate to a “revenue neutral” rate. That keeps property taxes flat after a revaluation, and keeps residents from getting stuck with a significantly higher property tax bill if their home appreciates in value. Columbus County commissioners opted not to adopt a revenue neutral rate, so homeowners there will pay millions more in taxes this year than they did last year.

“We’re not putting any of it back in the fund balance. I just don’t see spending everything that you’ve got coming in in one budget, the first year after a revaluation,” Byrd said.

Columbus County Manager Eddie Madden confirmed there are concerns about the county’s financial affairs that may force them to reconsider previously approved expenditures.

“Our consultants have been working with the county finance office since February on rectifying deficiencies in the finance office to include reconciling accounts. Their work is continuing and their findings will be shared with the auditors when they arrive in the fall. Depending on the results of the audit which will include a year end fund balance calculation for the current fiscal year, we may have to reduce the departmental expenditures in next year’s budget that will go into effect on July 1st,” Madden explained.

While it’s still unclear exactly what kind of discrepancies created the financial uncertainty for the county, county officials confirmed the county’s finance director, Bobbie Faircloth, was suspended from her job in March.

According to Columbus County News, Faircloth was escorted out of the building after a county commissioner’s meeting. An outside accounting firm had to be brought in to sort through the county’s books, and financial consultants estimated at the time that it could take five to six months to rectify. Commission Chair Ricky Bullard noted the accounting problems “go back two or three years.” He indicated several departments could be impacted.

Jay Leatherman has been serving as interim finance director.

Madden took the job as Columbus County manager March 29th. According to his contract with the county, he’s being paid $152,000, plus $5,200 a year in mileage compensation for his commute to and from his home in Bladen County. At the time, Commissioner Buddy Byrd voted against the hire and balked at Madden’s salary, noting it was significantly higher than the $109,803 Madden’s predecessor, Mike Stephens, was making. Compared to other similarly sized counties in our area, Madden’s salary is higher than average, but salaries do vary somewhat based on experience and desires of the board.

County manager salaries:

(Data compiled from UNC School of Government 2019-2020 salary survey and input from local county officials)

Halifax (population 51,766) $141,672

Watauga (population 55,945) $140,454

Lenoir (population 55,949) $128,125

Edgecombe (population 57,000) $125,000

Columbus (population 58,098) $152,000

Granville (population 59,333) $126,501

Duplin (population 59,736) $110,406

Haywood (population 60,000) $150,118

Other counties in our viewing area:

Pender County (population 60,958) $138,710

New Hanover County (population 223,000) $252,944

Brunswick County (population 136,000) $183,600

Bladen (population 32,722) $122,328

**Editors note** Columbus County officials are now disputing the accuracy of this report, but have not answered WECT’s questions about what exactly was inaccurate, or what their fund balance is.

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