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A look at what New Hanover County spends and what commission candidates think

READ MORE: A look at what New Hanover County spends and what commission candidates think

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) -- There are a lot of stories making headlines these days about big spending, bloated government. New Hanover County has been accused of overspending to the point of needing to pass sales and property tax increases, even in these tough financial times. But the devil is in the detail, and finding places to cut is a cumbersome, time consuming task. We decided to try anyway, and went line by line through hundreds of pages of itemized expenditures from the county.

The grand totals sound sky high. On cell phones alone New Hanover County spent almost $500,000 last year, but when we looked at the itemized breakdowns, no one person is running up a huge bill.

The select employees who have smart phones are given a $75 monthly allowance to cover their cell phone bill. Employees with more basic phones get about $30 a month, and there are also allowances for employees who work in the field, who have air cards for their laptops.

But the sheer number of people who have cell phones adds up. The county has 1,742 employees, and hundreds of them have county-issued cell phones.

New Hanover County spent more than $5 million on printing and supplies last year, and another half-million on travel and training. A lot of the line items are mundane, like toner cartridges and trash bags, but there were a few things that could be construed as excessive.

Despite the tight budget, the County Manager's office spent $560 on bottled water last year, and another $5,415.64 on 39 separate catered lunches and meetings.

The county spent $6,600 at Coastal Engraving on everything from employee awards, to engraved nameplates for employees' desks and office doors. The Board of Health expensed three orders from a florist for around $40 each.

The Sheriff's Office made $13,000 in contributions to non-profits, and Parks and Rec spent $3,700 on dog poop bags.

Perhaps most concerning were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of employee credit card purchases with no explanation whatsoever. We are told there is a box full of receipts we can go through, and that employees must get department head approval to qualify for those reimbursements. But without any kind of itemized spread sheet, it is extremely cumbersome to evaluate the merit of those expenses.

So what do the people vying to run New Hanover County think about these expenses? We showed the commission candidates our script, and got their reaction.

Rick Catlin: "What we're dealing with, though, are incremental budgets, where each year we take what's been spent, and that's kind of automatically approved, and we argue about what's changing. We really need to go back and zero things out and determine and justify every expense all the way through, and until we do that we're really not going to uncover the old legacy costs and the spider webs that are still in the budget."

Brian Berger: "We are in a very difficult economic period right now, and some of the niceties of years past, I would argue that those weren't acceptable then, and they're certainly not acceptable now."

Deborah Butler: "I am going to form, if elected, an economic SWAT team of sorts, because we have advocacy groups for the Transit Authority, for the Tourism Authority, but we don't have a Budget Advisory Committee, and I think if we ask department heads to legitimize their expenses, they're always going to be able to do that. That's human nature. But fresh eyes, outside sources with objective opinions are always going to be able to find details, wasteful spending that needs to be eradicated."

While all the candidates agreed that zero-based budgeting may be the way to go moving forward, Sid Causey had a different take on some of the individual expenses we questioned. He's worked in government his whole life and says he understands how it works, and the need for some of the expenses other candidates deemed unnecessary.

"Sometimes the lunches, I think they are necessary sometimes. A lot of times, lunch meetings, we're taking our lunch time to do a work session, and we're working through lunch, and so by not stopping and taking an hour off for lunch, I think that actually saves time and money in the long run," Causey said. "The $5 million supply budget, when I first read it I though, 'Ooh, that's a lot.' But then when I got back up and break down, you're looking at a $254 million dollar budget. Five-million dollars is less than two percent, so I'm not sure that's out of line."

Causey said rather than focusing on more cuts, we should focus on growing the economy to generate more revenue.

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