By Richard Sullins |

Developing and adopting the annual budget for Lee County is the single most important action its commissioners take all year. It establishes the amount of property taxes its 63,000 residents will be subject to and how they’ll be spent. Last year, that budget plan was $84 million.

Lee County Commissioners are nearing the end of their process for preparing the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget, and citizens will get their first look at the proposal when it is unveiled at the June 6 meeting.

Key among the items that could potentially see an increase this year are two agencies that are facing increasing demands for their services as the county continues to grow: the sheriff’s office and Central Carolina Community College.

Estes asks for more deputies

The largest request for an increase in funding for the coming year comes from interim Sheriff Brian Estes, who asked the board to fund his proposal for four more deputies and a narcotics officer in the coming year. Estes’ budget asks for an 11 percent increase over the level commissioners funded it last year, a raise of more than $7 million.

Estes said when he started working with the county in 2002, there were four deputies at work on each shift. 20 years later, that’s increased to just five, despite a sizeable jump in population.

That circumstance could potentially create problems if, for example, a domestic violence call is received and an officer needs backup. In those cases, an officer from an adjacent area must be called to assist and that could result in portions of the county left without an officer on patrol for hours at a time.

But other duties are equally time-consuming and just as demanding on man-hours.

When an individual has to be involuntarily committed, deputies are required to transport them to the commitment facility. Part-time staff members are used for the process to the extent they are available, but full-time deputies must be called in if part-time help is unavailable. The process of officially charging a person with a crime through a magistrate can take a deputy off the road for hours. Estes said the office logged 15,047 assigned case numbers last year, with each number representing an instance where a deputy was dispatched to handle an incident, and is on pace to log 17,000 individual cases this year.

Animal control is another issue. It’s the county’s responsibility to handle those calls from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. within the Sanford city limits. Essential training takes deputies off the roads, as does illness. Testifying in court can also sometimes leave the office short-handed because it is possible for a deputy to be in court for an entire day. And deputies serve all civil processes within the county, including collection of delinquent rent.

Most importantly, Estes said, deputies need back up for each other. Two deputies were shot in the line of duty this year but fortunately, both survived. The sheriff told the Commissioners how extremely lucky both officers had been and also said, “we can’t keep counting on luck.”

The office’s inability to pay competitive salaries remains a major problem. Estes said one of his left last week for a new job with a $19,000 raise at the Apex Police Department.

The request for four new deputies is $262,125, which includes benefits.

Estes is also asking for funding that would support a new sergeant’s position devoted solely to narcotics investigations. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports 31 opioid emergency department visits within the county during the first four months of the year and Estes said the number of calls relating to fentanyl overdoses continues to lead all dispatches relating to drug abuse.

Presently, overdose investigations are handled by existing personnel who sometimes have to be pulled off their current cases. The sheriff said there is also a need for this officer to lead investigations of overdoses that happen in the Lee County Jail. Costs for this position are estimated to be $72,147 annually.

The sheriff’s office has asked for material support for the new positions, in addition to others for existing personnel. There is a request for $50,000 in uniforms for the five new positions, plus changes in colors and style in uniforms for the entire department. Postage in the amount of $8,400 is on the wish list for the costs of mailing renewal notices for concealed handgun permits.

Request documents from the office also include five new rifles for each of the new hires, plus another nine Zion Z15s, a total cost of $9,219 for the 14 AR-15 style weapons. Estes also wishes to buy 13 new 2022 Dodge Durango sport utility vehicles at a cost of $715,656.

Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe believes there is a way to fund all of the sheriff’s requests.

“I think that if we kept just a half-cent of the property tax cut that has been added into this year’s budget, that would take care of everything he wants,” he said.

His suggestion failed to draw any comments from the Republican commissioners.

Estes, who assumed the office in January, is now in his fifth month in the position and is continuing to evaluate and implement the sort of changes he believes are necessary not only to maintain morale among his officers, but to ensure the citizens of the county are well-protected and served.

He’s the first to admit, though, that it’s a challenge.

“We’re doing everything we can to provide other incentives that are not monetary in nature,” he said, “like allowing our officers to grow facial hair if it is kept neat and clean. And we’re also allowing them to wear their vests on the outside of their clothing instead of inside it. That makes them a little more comfortable during their shifts and keeps the vests cleaner and lasting longer. About five or six of our officers live out of the county and we allow them to drive their vehicles home at the end of their shift. It’s hard to fill your vacancies when colleges are finding it difficult themselves to find six people to get to the minimum number needed for a (basic law enforcement training) class. Not only are we trying to hire them, but every other department from counties and cities all around us want them to come to work there.”

Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives responded “the lesson here is that government is just now learning that they have to pay for good people and their services.”

CCCC asks for job training resources

CCCC President Dr. Lisa Chapman made the case Monday for increased funding of the state’s 10th largest commuter institution.

The college’s request for 2022-23 is for $3.9 million in local support from Lee County, which represents an increase of $498,205 from the current year’s budget. Executive Vice President Dr. Phillip Price said that most of the request is in the form of salaries and benefits, even though the college is not requesting any new positions that would be paid from local funds.

The 2021-22 budget bill that was enacted by the state legislature last year included a provision that set minimum salaries for all community college employees. That amount is $13 per hour for the current year, and it increases to $15 per hour when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

Price said “the legislature wants colleges to be working toward more competitive rates for their employees, which previously had not been up to the rates being offered by McDonald’s or Walmart. We were just not being competitive because we didn’t have the money to pay them. None of our colleges did.”

The state provided funds to pay the increases for faculty members and support staff. But employees who are paid from local funds, such as maintenance, housekeeping, and landscaping workers, would need to receive an increase from county funds if they were to keep pace with their state-paid colleagues. The college’s budget request asks for an increase from the commissioners to allow those workers paid from local funds to get those same raise percentages.

The college is also requesting $100,000 next year for its capital outlay budget, which covers the costs of maintenance, housekeeping, utilities, security, and legal fees. Price said a number of parking lots need to be resurfaced, new sidewalks would improve connections between some buildings, and handicapped door operators need to be installed in some locations. The college’s capital request is a $25,000 increase from what it has been in recent years.

Chapman also discussed a desire for an additional $50,000 to boost the Lee County College Promise Program, which guarantees up to two years of free in-state tuition and required fees at Central Carolina to all eligible Lee County residents, making the total available fund valued at $250,000.

The college’s formal request received a generally favorable reception. With electric carmaker VinFast asking that a training program for its workers be operational by the summer of 2023, CCCC is on the fast track to get portions of the former Magnetti Morelli property, now known as the Moore Center, up and running within the next year. That will be a challenge for the county.

The Governor’s Office is helping facilitate the elimination of red tape so the project meets its target dates, including assistance with funding for the necessary remodeling and renovations. The county acquired the 22-acre site last July in a deal that will almost double the size of CCCC’s existing campus.

Republican Commissioner Bill Carver, who also serves as a CCCC trustee, said it will be easy for him to support CCCC’s request because “it plays a central part in economic development in this county. I know that there is some handwringing taking place on where we are going to get the workers for all these new jobs, but I am confident that the college is working on it.”

Carver acknowledged this year’s ask is harder than usual for commissioners to wrap their heads around because of the increased costs associated with the Moore Center, but said “I’m sure you will figure it out.”

But those costs gave pause to Republican Commissioner Dr. Andre Knecht, who expressed his concerns that “commitment to education is one thing. The Moore Center created an added cost when it fell into our lap. And it’s a lot for us to balance.”

But County Manager Dr. John Crumpton was taking the long view. Crumpton has been the county’s point person on getting the site cleaned up and initiating the process necessary to get the permits needed to begin the renovations.

“There are a lot of moving parts going on internally in terms of what (CCCC) will be getting from the state. They’ve asked for one of the largest departmental increases we have – about $1.6 million,” he said. “But I see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Moore Center almost doubles the space of the community college, and it will create many new programs. I don’t see how the commissioners could pass this up.”

What happens next

With significant increases coming during the past two years from sales and property taxes largely supported by growth at Central Carolina Enterprise Park, the county finally has fiscal resources it has not been able to call upon in the past. That surplus has led to differing schools of thought on how to best use it.

There is a push in some circles for commissioners to cut property taxes even more drastically than last year, perhaps as much as 5 cents per $100 of valuation. And there are others who support a smaller tax cut in favor of using portions of the revenue surplus to meet some of the needs of CCCC, the sheriff’s office, Lee County Schools, SAGA, and others. The Rant recently covered the school board’s request for $1.6 million in additional funding to pay for increasing supplements for teachers and staff.

Crumpton will roll out the draft proposal of the budget to the public at the next commissioners meeting on June 6. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal on June 20, and commissioners are expected to take a vote on adoption of the spending and revenue plan afterwards.