Tuesday, 04 January 2022 22:27

Richmond County gets clean bill of financial health; public comment policy on hold

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Alan Thompson presents the county's audit report to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. Alan Thompson presents the county's audit report to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County’s fiscal health is improving, according to the audit report presented to the Board of Commissioners Tuesday evening.


Alan Thompson — from the firm Thompson, Price, Scott, Adams & Company, PA — told commissioners that there were no “significant” audit findings in the county’s financial records and that trends have been moving in the right direction since 2018.

The county was able to increase its fund balance by 26%, following a 21% increase in 2020, according to County Manager Bryan Land. The debt burden was also “slashed” from $42 million to less than $28 million.

“If you wanted to look at something from a cash-flow-positive standpoint, your cash is going up, fund balance is going up, debt’s going down,” Thompson said. “That’s a real healthy scenario there.

“In today’s time, with a lot of uncertainty … you probably want to be … in the range you are right now, as a minimum, to be a healthy county … because things pop up over time … and you want to be able to manage those items.”

Thompson said his firm had two notes with the audit.

“One really had more to do with  the transition of finance officers,” with the retirement of Mac Stegall and the installation of Cary Garner — “there were a couple of things that took a little bit to get reconciled.”

The other was a budget violation because of a new standard, but Thompson said it was “not a big deal.”

At the beginning of the presentation, Thompson told commissioners about a change from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board requiring the county to account for every lease —whether leasing to or from another entity — of 12 months or more.

Thompson said it will be part of next year’s audit report and “could” create challenges and have a big impact.

County Manager Bryan Land said the audit is considered his “annual report card.”

2021 was the third consecutive year and only the third time since 2005 that the fund balance wasn’t used to balance the budget.

He said he was proud of the way the finance department handled the aforementioned transition in leadership.

Not only did Stegall retire after 15 years as director, but Sheila Trotter, who had been deputy director since 2008, transitioned to human resources director.

Land said Garner and his team “have done an outstanding job carrying the torch in getting us through the transition phase” and making the audit process “almost seamless.”

“We’ve had a wonderful v-shaped recovery since the end of 2017 and I want this trend to continue,” Land said.

The county manager’s goal is to increase it to 35%, which he said is around the state average and the state’s recommendation for county’s of similar size.

Also in 2021, the county’s tax collection rate was 97.36% — the highest ever, according to Land.

“Over the last four years, we’ve netted over $800,000 and placed 170 dormant properties back on our tax books” through various auctions, Land continued.

“All of our department heads, outside agencies and our finance department deserve a huge pat on the back for this audit,” Land said. “They are the ones that made the considerable sacrifices over the last four years to turn our financial state (around).”

Budgeting for the next fiscal year begins in 45 days, according to Land.

COMMENT POLICY ON HOLD

Although Commissioner Justin Dawkins proposed last month that an amended public appearance policy be ready for a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, that didn’t happen.

Land said county attorney Bill Webb hasn’t yet had time to look it over.

County Clerk Dena Cook has “done a considerable amount of work over the last three weeks” collecting information from other counties, the N.C. School of Government and other “various sources,” according to Land, who added that all the requested changes had been made.

One main issue with the current policy — which First Amendment experts have said poses “serious concerns” for free speech — is a provision that bars residents from speaking on items that are included in the meeting’s agenda.

The policy has been on the books for more than 20 years.

Commissioner Grooms said in December that he’d like to do away with that rule “altogether.”

That statement has been stricken from the draft policy.

Another rule in the policy Grooms took issue with was one requiring potential speakers to sign up with the clerk the Friday before the meeting, which is typically held the first Tuesday of each month.

He thought, if the agenda wasn’t publicly posted until Friday, it wouldn’t give potential speakers enough time.

“The way it looks to me, we’re almost discouraging citizens of this county from coming in here and speaking on agenda items," Grooms said last month.

To address the latter issue, a draft of the revised policy states that the agenda will be posted by 5 p.m. on the Wednesday before the meeting and still has would-be speakers signing up by 5 p.m. the prior Friday, essentially giving them 48 hours.

“So that’ll still give us some time over the weekend, if we have some issues, to discuss with Mr. Webb or any of our department heads,” Land said.

Among other changes, the draft also:

  • shortens individual speaking time from five minutes to three minutes and gives groups a total of six minutes with a limit of two speakers;
  • Seemingly limits speakers to county residents or property owners;
  • Prohibits comments or matters that are “harmful, discriminatory or embarassing to any citizen(s), official(s) or employees of Richmond County."

The only change to the draft Grooms requested was that the time limit remains the same.

"I like it better than what we currently have and think it will serve the purpose we're looking for," Grooms said after the meeting.

According to a 2013 post by First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. at the Freedom Forum Institute, governments “may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech as long as those restrictions are content-neutral and are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.”

In that same post, Hudson also mentions that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that policies that prohibit personal attacks and restrict residency are constitutional.

A decision was put off until the February meeting.

The board also voted to approve a proclamation designating Jan. 17 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the county.

(NOTE: This story has been edited to include a quote. 10:50 p.m. 1-4-22)

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 January 2022 22:49