A look at what New Hanover County spends and what commission candidates think
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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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Go, check him out, he is ALL RHETORIC! The more you know about Brian Berger, the more likely you will send him packing!

Butler lives in a far left world--we elect commissioners to make decisions not to pass the buck to others. Not a surprise from a landlord whose tenants tell us she plays hardball with them and can't be trusted to practice what she preaches.
We dont need swat-we dont need the higher taxes she has supported and we dont need another landlord now.

Wow, what did we learn. An big organization buys a lot of supplies and prints a lot of documents.
How about the other big employers in New Hanover county. What do they spend on printing and supplies?
Please compare to these and tell us how much more or less the county spends.

5. University of NC Wilmington (Higher Education) - 1,871 employees
6. PPD, Inc. (Discovery & Development Services to Pharmaceutical & Biotech) - 1,500 employees
7. New Hanover County (County Government) - 1,490 employees
8. Cape Fear Community College (Education) - 1,256 employees
9. Verizon Wireless (Communications) - 1,300 employees
10. City of Wilmington (Government) - 1,200 employees

It really doesn't matter how much PPD or Verizon spend since they are private companies that are not taxpayer funded. All others take tax money in some way.

Grant and County money is grossly misused. Yes some employees do need cell phones. Law enforcement needs the long distance as I am sure other areas of governmet do as well. How about instead of providing phones to every law enforcement officer, you provide a set of phones that are left at the office for other shifts. Share those phones between two officers. Stop allowing Sheriff's deputies to drive their cars for errands, child visits, to other counties etc. Campaign/Christmas parties are held at the Court House. Pottery barn furniture is purchased with Grant money. Government issued cars are used for personal use and driven while claiming mileage for personal gain. The list goes on and on. The problem is... no one listens to the complaints b/c they are too concerned with their head landing on the chopping block! No one sees through the political BS to call stuff like it is.

Sid, if you don't think 2% is a lot, then you don't need to be elected. I do working lunches all the time and pay for it myself. I am sure the county has a board room and the meeting can be there and the employees can bring bag lunches from home. The employee knows they will have to eat each day and so they either bring their lunch or go out an buy lunch.
The problem now with our goverment is that the elect officals think that there is a endless supply of money. If they don't have enough just raise taxes, the people will pay for it.

Causey and catlin have the wrong qualifications and the wrong experience. Catlin had plenty of chances to talk out against higher taxes and spending. he did not-instead he played along to get along and has plenty of potential conflicts with business he does with county. The other good ole boy-causey has a questionable record as sheriff and he clearly doesnot understand the issues-just read his questionnaire responses to wsn. These good ole boys have the wrong experience and the wrong qualifications- they are part of the problem-sure as heck not a solution. Smears by these jokers against berger and butler are rubbish

Deborah Butler is an attorney and also owns several properties that she rents. I know people that have rented from her that have not had requested repairs made on their home and have had their deposit taken under very shady circumstances. I have also heard from people that have worked on her rental properties who have not gotten paid on time or were given less money than agreed upon. If this is how she runs her properties, how is she going to be if put in political office and in charge of our tax dollars?!? She will NOT be getting my vote.

He has a questionable business background, Brian has not been specific about his background, he has not served this county in anyway, as others have. Brian Berger would simply be an EMBARRISSMENT to our county!

Whey to go SID just trying to protect your good ole boys again. Every penny should be accounted for. I sure the county paid for all of your lunches when you were sheriff or was that drug money!I guest the sheriffs office is going to sell Sids Heliocopter and who will get that money. Sid should not be allowed to speak @ these interviews all you will hear is his Ignorance. IT TIME TO REPAINT THIS COUNTY WITH SOME NEW FACES!!
DON'T VOTE FOR SID CAUSEY
NOTE: THE ONLY JOB HE WORK IN IS GOVERMENT.NOT GOOD!!!!

I wish my employer gave me a credit card, cell phone, cell phone allowance, and free lunches.

Sid is plain wrong-but no surprise there. Causey just isn't on top of recent issues- he's either not informed or doesn't care. Worst of all he is OK with spending levels- given wasteful spending by him in office-that should not be a surprise. Causey will not fix the spending and tax problems because he doesnt see them. We cant afford Causey.

Did I hear right? $500,000 for cellphones for County employees? I wish my employer would provide cellphones to all it's employees. Although there is probably justification for some cellphones for emergency use, an average of $75 a mopnth seems excessive when all that is needed is a basic local phone only.

Ms. Butler is wrong- we dont need a swat team- we need commissioners who will do their job and protect taxpayers and not special interests-like Landlord Butler. Butler supported the sales tax increase and is an extreme advocate of more services from government.
She is not being candid during this election cycle- what she said during dem primary reflects her tax and spend approach.
Her tenants dont trust her and neither should we.

WOW-We have quite the ax to grind don't we. Just so you know the sales tax incentive was supported since it was presented to the people of New Hanover County as an alternative to raising property taxes. Since many others and myself don’t think the county should function solely on the back of its property owners, we supported the tax in an effort to spread the burden among all people of New Hanover County. “Tax and Spend” huh? Maybe if you took time away from the TV and decided to educate yourself on the issues you could come up with better reasons for supporting or not supporting a candidate, instead of being the mouthpiece and spouting off all of the “approved” expressions and buzz words.

I think the point being maede here is that if the county and state would learn to manage money, noone would be voting on any kind of tax increase. It would not be needed.