Beaufort County Council voted Wednesday to affirm the power of the county administrator to do whatever is necessary to avoid a year-end budget deficit by making preventative cuts -- which could include a furlough program for county workers.
"We are policy-makers; we are not managers nor micromanagers," said Chairman Weston Newton, who made the motion after council completed the agenda at a scheduled budget workshop.
A sour economy and slow tax payments have reduced revenue and raised the possibility of a $1 million to $2 million deficit, which would shrink the county's emergency reserve fund.
Administrators have proposed a set of budget cuts such as reducing hours at libraries and solid-waste convenience centers, closing one of the county's four swimming pools, and shuttering two community centers in northern Beaufort County.
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Council members have not yet given any of the cuts their blessing, and county administrator Gary Kubic said Tuesday that he directed the county attorney to research those budget cuts that could be done administratively.
The answer, Kubic said after Wednesday's meeting, is that he has an "almost unrestrained capability to live within our means."
Newton told council his motion was intended to affirm that power.
"There's not really one of those budget recommendation adjustments that the county administrator does not have the legal authority to do today on his own," he said. "I'm not trying to give him any authority he doesn't already have."
Kubic said after the meeting that the motion, which passed 8-1, will put council's weight behind his cost-cutting efforts.
"It tells everybody that I'm working with within the organization that the problems are immediate and real," he said.
It's too late, however, to fiddle at the margins with some of the cuts or proposed service reductions, Kubic said.
Instead, the biggest cost-cutting efforts will probably include some type of rotating furlough in May and June for a subset of county workers, he said.
Kubic said he is already identifying a personnel pool -- excluding essential staff, such as those working in public safety or the courts -- that could be placed in a furlough program.
Councilman Steve Baer cast the lone "no" vote on the motion.
Baer has repeatedly argued the proposed cuts are to "soft targets."
"There are many places in this budget that many savings could be had that have not yet been explored," Baer said. "We should spend the next 30 days working hard to balance this budget to move it where we want it, rather than take these draconian measures. So I think this is a terrible move."
Newton said council's opportunity for input is at the beginning of each budget year. Once an appropriation is made, he said, administrators are responsible for implementing it.
"Many of the areas of exploration that you'd like to get into are beyond your authority as a policy-maker," Newton told Baer.
Councilman Gerald Dawson, who has opposed shuttering a community center in Dale, said he simply wanted Kubic to consider reducing its hours instead.
"I'm not questioning his authority," Dawson said. "I'm offering a counter-suggestion to the suggestions that we have been given."
Councilman Stu Rodman said instead of deep cuts during the two months that remain before the fiscal year ends June 30, the county could temporarily tap its reserves. The potential deficit could then be spread over -- and paid back during -- the next year.
That might be an option, but Newton said it would require council's approval because Kubic cannot unilaterally spend from reserves.
"He doesn't have the authority to deficit spend without a supplemental appropriation," Newton said. "So when the money's gone, the doors close."