LUMBERTON — The Robeson County Board of Commissioners broke with tradition Monday night and agreed that all money spent from a commissioner’s discretionary fund will now be voted on at public meetings.
“I know we agreed on this, and I want to make sure everyone is aware of it,” Commissioner Roger Oxendine said. “The way we spend our community enhancement money will now appear on our consent agenda and we will vote on it.”
The announcement came at the end of Monday’s board meeting following unanimous approval of the county’s $145.7 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Commissioner Lance Herndon was not present at the meeting.
The budget, which holds steady the county’s property tax rate at 77 cents per $100 of property value and includes a water rate increase of $2 month, goes into effect July 1. The stipulation for the vote on discretionary money was part of the new budget.
Earlier this month, the commissioners voted to reduce their discretionary funds in the upcoming fiscal year from $40,000 to $30,000 each. The process over the years has been to let each commissioner disperse money without seeking approval from other board members.
“For me, it’s all a matter of accountability,” Chairman Noah Woods said. “We are now going to put these items on our consent agenda for us to approve. That’s just good accountability.”
After Monday’s meeting, Oxendine said that media scrutiny led the commissioners to re-think their policy for distributing the discretionary money that is used to help support such things as school projects, recreation programs, and volunteer fire and rescue services.
The new process of approving and distributing discretionary money is similar to the one used by the Lumberton City Council. Each councilman gets $4,000 in community revitalization funds a year, but the individual expenditures must be approved by a unanimous vote of the council. The commissioners will not require a unanimous vote.
Last year, The Robesonian found no other counties in the state where commissioners had discretionary funds to disperse freely. Most other counties and municipalities include funding for community groups in annual budgets.
Although Robeson County commissioners provide special appropriations in their budget for such such entities as the public library, county museum, Robeson Community College, COMtech and
non-profits, the commissioners have defended the need for discretionary money to provide for immediate needs that can’t be appropriated during the budget process.
On Monday, Commissioners Tom Taylor, David Edge and Hubert Sealey all said that they recently used some of their discretionary money to help fund graduation and other school expenses for groups and individuals that couldn’t raise money in time.
In addition to maintaining the tax rate and increasing water fees, the budget approved for the coming fiscal year provides a 2 percent cost of living increase for county employees and increases fees for some ambulance services. It also increases appropriations for Robeson Community College, the county’s public library system and COMtech.
“The budget is tight,” Harris said. “There is little for capital expenditures, but we were able to do a few things like get a few cars for the sheriff.”
In other business, the commissioners on Monday:
— Appointed attorney Doug Murray, a Brunswick County resident who formerly practiced law in Robeson County, as the county’s interim attorney. Murray replaces Hal Kinlaw, who resigned after it became public that he is being sued by BB&T for $17.8 million in unpaid loans.
— Heard a brief presentation from Blake Tyner , director of the Robeson County History Museum. Tyner and members of the museum’s board of directors were present at the meeting to request additional county funding to support the museum and its programs.
— Approved a screening process for recreation coaches. According to Wendy Chavis, director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, this is the first time the county has had a written policy.
— Heard a report from Margaret Lennon, the area Agency on Aging Administrator. Lennon told the commissioners that the Home and Community Care Block Grant for the coming fiscal year will include $15,306 less in state and federal funding due to the sequester imposed by the federal government. She said all of her agency’s services for Robeson and four surrounding counties are receiving less funding in the coming fiscal year.
— Approved a conditional-use permit request that Rural Chavis needs to establish a mobile home park in Shannon.