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County agrees to cover school shortfall; strings attached

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Nash County commissioners put additional conditions on budget requests from the school system and sheriff’s office during last week’s annual budget retreat.

Commissioners and key staff members spent March 26-27 at The Barn in Sharpsburg reviewing capital, department needs and outside agency requests prior to approval of a new fiscal year budget in June.

In a relaxed, informal setting, commissioners heard presentations from department heads on March 26 and spent both days looking intently over every aspect of the county’s spending needs. Requests for expanded funding next year amounted to about $4.8 million out of total expected general fund spending of $95.5 million.

A major item under discussion was a request from Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools for a funding advance of $800,000 to cover a shortfall in this year’s school budget and avoid a 35 percent cut in supplemental pay for school employees.

Superintendent Shelton Jefferies wrote in a March 25 letter to County Manager Zee Lamb that the school system had identified a budgetary shortage of $2.4 million but had “repurposed federal dollars and staff transfers … which have eliminated a significant portion of the funding gap.”

The remaining shortfall, Jefferies said, was $400,000 in locally funded salary increases, $200,000 for Citi High to replace legislative cuts and $200,000 for additional operations. He asked that the advance be repaid over multiple years in a negotiated agreement.

The request “bothers me tremendously,” said commissioners’ Chairman Robbie Davis, who said he would agree to the request only upon four conditions:

• The state Department of Public Instruction will be asked to come in on a voluntary basis to do a full audit of the system’s financial condition, including a review of existing instructional staffing needs, central office staffing needs and overall evaluation of the school system.

• Have school board auditor Dale Smith perform an audit of the fund balance in each of the revenue accounts and report findings directly to school board members and commissioners.

• Place a spending freeze on the local school budget.

• Expedite the construction of a previously approved new elementary school to protect already obtained grant funds.

In their discussion, commissioners made it clear they were unhappy with school spending and felt administrative costs were too high.

“I do believe the administration is too heavy,” Lamb said. “They have people they can probably do without. You do without administrators but you can’t do without classroom teachers.

“Teachers are underpaid anyway,” said Commissioner Dan Cone, who insisted that thae shortfall not affect classroom teachers.

“The problem is they need some training in how to handle a fund balance and the whole budget,” said Commissioner Fred Belfield. “There needs to be a thorough audit of the system. If they are going to cut their budget, they need to look at their support services.”

“They have spent money on things they don’t have in the budget to start with,” argued Davis, who also complained the school system was being too slow in building a new elementary school.

“If we allow them to sit on that money, it’s just going to go to another county. That’s how it works,” Davis said.

Commissioner Wayne Outlaw insisted the advance be repaid within the next budget cycle. Cone moved to approve the request with the conditions provided it be repaid in the next budget and not affect classroom teachers.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the motion.

The board also spent considerable time discussing a proposed grant application by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office to expand its current medication-assisted treatment program into a two-year pilot jail-based MAT program with a licensed clinical social worker.

The proposal would cost $100,250 per year for two years, including the $68,000 needed annually for the social worker with the rest spent on the drug Vivitrol at $1,000 per dose for 30 people.

Begun in 2018, the MAT program identifies inmates with opioid use disorder who can participate in treatment using Vivitrol (naltrexone). Inmates are given the initial injection three days prior to release from jail and referred to the local community health center.

In the proposal, sheriff’s Maj. Dennis Wooten reported that after seven months of operation, 16 inmates have received injections and the program is demonstrating a 73 percent success rate.

“However, to maintain the program, funding is needed, particularly to hire a social worker with a background in substance use disorder treatment to be responsible for monitoring the program and coordinating care,” the proposal reads.

“Success is dependent on the ability to continue communication with the participants who are released and address their social and recovery support needs,” the proposal continues. “A social worker would be able to connect the participants to Medicaid, employment, housing, in-patient rehabilitation, recovery support services and public assistance.”

A major concern for commissioners is that the county wanted the social worker to be a part of the health department while the sheriff wanted the social worker to be part of the jail staff.

Belfield noted that health department nurses had been treating inmates for years.

Lamb presented the board with a list of conditions for which the commissioners would approve the MAT grant. The conditions would go through human resources and set up a four-member panel for interviewing and selecting a candidate. The panel would include other county agencies besides the sheriff’s office.

The conditions also insist that the new, temporary staff position “be actively involved” with the CARE program, the Recovery Alliance Center and the Hope Initiative, and calls for ongoing coordination with Trillium, the county’s mental health provider.

Lamb asked for permission to submit the required paperwork, noting that money is available and that Trillium also “wants us to get this thing.”

Outlaw suggested more coordination with the sheriff before proceeding, but the board was ready to act.

“Just go on and do it,” Cone said. A motion to proceed with the grant was unanimously approved.

In other business, board voted to appoint and then swore in Doris Sumner, a collections supervisor in the county tax office, as the new acting tax administrator to replace veteran administrator Jim Wrenn, who is retiring.