LUMBERTON — The county Board of Commissioners on Thursday gave Robeson Community College $300,000 to help pay the college’s May and June bills, but not without criticizing college President Charles Chrestman and how the community college is carrying out its fiscal responsibilities. The Robesonian was also criticized for its coverage of the college’s financial woes.
Commissioner Noah Woods, the board’s chairman and a member of the RCC board of trustees, opened the budget work session by criticizing RCC’s fiscal management.
“Information provided this body by the president of Robeson Community College in support of a supplemental budget allocation clearly shows that budgetary and fiscal management at that institution is in severe disarray, or must believe they can operate the college in a manner not unlike the Congress of the United States,” said in a statement. “… Taxpayers of this county expect their elected officials, who are responsible for appropriating funds for public purposes, to ensure that those funds are reasonably well managed.
“A cursory review of RCC’s practices for the past three years demonstrates a pattern of annual overspending by college personnel that is inexcusable by any standard of prudent budget and fiscal management,” Woods said. “… It is not the purview of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners to attempt to micro-manage the fiscal affairs of Robeson County Community College, however, as the lawful authority for public funds collected from the citizens of this county we as a body must review our processes and procedures as they relate to Robeson County Community College’s budget allocation from county funds.”
A reporter for The Robesonian was then asked by the commissioners if he or his “boss” at the newspaper had been contacted by Chrestman.
“It sells newspapers,” Commissioner Jerry Stephens said.
The Robesonian was not contacted by Chrestman concerning the matter, except on May 23 when he called the newspaper to inform it of a board of trustees meeting the next day. That conversation lasted less than 30 seconds.
Earlier this month, Chrestman asked the commissioners on behalf of the trustees for an additional allocation of $341,000 so the school can pay for May and June maintenance and operations costs. This is the third consecutive year that he has come before the board at the end of the fiscal year to request more money.
According to Chrestman and the trustees, the county the past three years has not allocated RCC enough to cover the school’s costs for maintenance and operations, forcing the college to ask for additional funding to meet end-of-fiscal year expenses. Each year the county has allocated RCC $1.9 million for operations and maintenance. Money has also been allocated for roof repairs, with this year that amount totaling $225,000.
Chrestman emphasized Thursday that the additional expenses have resulted from repairs to aging HVAC systems, unanticipated emergency repairs, and high energy costs. He said that according to the college’s chief finance officer, RCC currently has about $4,200 on hand to pay $100,000 in May maintenance and operating bills and the anticipated $190,280 in June bills. Some bills can be rolled over to the next fiscal year.
In requesting the $341,000, Chrestman told the commissioners that anything less would put a strain on next year’s college fiscal operations and maintenance budget, since the unpaid bills would have to be paid out of the next fiscal year county appropriation.
Although the county’s proposed budget for 2012-13 will increase to $2 million with funding for capital projects being increased to $300,000, Chrestman said that is already below the $2,328,919 the college projects will be needed to fund maintenance and operations costs for the fiscal year.
“If we don’t have enough money, there’s a possibility I will have to recommend that the college be closed for a certain amount of time,” Chrestman told the board. “I’m not saying we will close the college, but I need options.”
With the amount of funding the county plans to allocate RCC during the next budget year, Chrestman told The Robesonian that the college will be about seven and a quarter weeks short of maintenance and operation funds for a full year.
“If that happens, I will have to get direction from my board on what action to take,” he said. “We may have to discontinue evening classes or do something else that I would consider far out from the normal.”
Chrestman had little to say about allegations of fiscal mismanagement.
“Managing a community college is a complex business,” he said. “Understanding a community college budget is also complex. We have done a good job managing state, county and other revenue sources. If not, the state auditor wouldn’t have given us a clean report and said how good of a job we are doing.”
Chrestman also said that the fact that the college has run out of money before the end of the past three fiscal years is not an indication of mismanagement.
“It indicates there is not enough cash on hand to run the institution properly,” he said. “Like with any family or business budget, if you don’t have the money you can’t pay the bills.”
Stephens and Commissioner Roger Oxendine directed numerous questions to Chrestman about college expenditures, contractual services, and spending.
“I want to help you as much as I can, but I’m having a hard time with some of this,” Oxendine said, citing a landscaping bill as an example. “There are so many things here that you people should have your hands on when you put your budget together.”
Commissioner Raymond Cummings told Chrestman that RCC needs to cut expenditures in all areas.
“Our manager is tough on all departments,” he said. “We’re trying to hold the line on expenditures. Money is tight. We don’t want to raise taxes.”
Commissioner David Edge said he thought some board members were being too “tough” on Chrestman. He suggested the county give RCC the amount of funding requested for the next fiscal year and make it clear that there will be no additional county funding.
“Let’s give it up front and say don’t come back for more,” Edge said.
The recommendation was quickly shot down by other commissioners who argued no matter how much funding the college receives, it will spend every dollar and then at the end of the fiscal year come back to the board asking for more.
After a long discussion, the commissioners agreed to request a line-item breakdown of RCC’s proposed operations and maintenance budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“We have worked hard to find anywhere we can save money,” George Regan, chairman of RCC’s board of trustees, told The Robesonian. “We’ve stretched the rubber band as far as it will stretch and now it has popped.”
In other budget matters, the commissioners tweaked, but made no major changes, to the $141.8 million fiscal 2012-13 budget proposed by Ricky Harris, the county’s interim county manager. The budget calls for the current property tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of property value to remain the same, and does not provide for new staff positions or layoffs.
Most significant changes to the original budget proposal include:
— Increasing the budget for the Robeson County Public Library from $270,000 to $300,000.
— Increasing the Sheriff’s Department allocation for vehicles from $150,000 to $250,000.
— Reducing the proposed allocation for COMtech from $196,000 to $96,000.
A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held on June 18.
During Thursday’s meeting the board also voted to decline an offer from the Public Schools of Robeson County to accept the old Townsend Middle School gym. Only Commissioners Hubert Sealey and Jerry Stephens voted in favor of accepting the building.
According to Hal Kinlaw, the school system can now sell or lease the building to any one it desires.
“We don’t need more real estate,” Kinlaw said. “The schools need money more than the county needs a building.”
Town officials in Maxton have been pushing for the county to accept the building and then turn the facility over to the town to be used as a community center.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.