This column will focus on the word ‘misinformation.’ We will define it and then see how the word applies to Scotland County and the city of Laurinburg.
Misinformation is defined as ‘false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.’ Much of the information citizens get from their local elected officials is, in fact, misinformation. In this past week alone, the citizens were subjected to repeated attempts of misinformation. Some of the misinformation was quite obvious while some not so obvious, depending on the experience and skill of the officials involved. Let me explain.
Last week, several examples of the obvious type of misinformation were demonstrated by the chairman of the school board. Attempting to explain the school board’s very unpopular school closings, the chairman said the plan would save money because “roofs, chillers, keeping up the electricity of these buildings” was expensive. He then tried to ‘dumb it down’ so we could perhaps understand better. He said “it’s like having nine old cars and instead having 4 or 5 cars and making them work and making them more efficient, and quit spending so much money on keeping that car that’s old and not running well anymore.” Unfortunately, as perfectly reasonable as the chairman would have us believe this ‘information’ is, it is an example of blatant misinformation. The facts are that over the past three years, the local money spent on school’s capital expenditures are $300,000, $189,770, and $198,000. That is for all of the schools combined. So, exactly how will the school’s $40 million consolidation plan save money when it will cost $2.7 million annually of local money to pay the mortgage for the next 20 years? Maybe one of us simple folk can explain to the chairman that it is much less expensive to keep nine old cars running than to give a few away, demolish one, restore a couple and buy a big new Cadillac as his consolidation plan calls for.
The chairman then went on to say that “we are not letting anyone go through this process”, meaning no jobs would be lost But his own superintendent, in an article in The Laurinburg Exchange said ‘last year’s closure of Washington Park and Pate-Gardner saved the school system 12 positions.’ He went on to say ‘with further consolidation another 33 positions with an average salary of $58,000 and 4 positions with an average salary of $40,000’ will be lost through reducing the size of the school system’s staff. In other words the school board chairman is spreading the misinformation that school consolidation will be paid for by getting rid of costly ‘old cars’ when, in fact, consolidation is going to be paid for by gradually eliminating almost all of the locally funded school positions.
Over at Laurinburg City Hall, the players are more experienced in the art of misinformation, so it is not as obvious. City council wants you to click your heels in delight with this year’s budget. They have managed to craft a budget keeping the city tax rate the same with no increase in utilities. Personally, I doubt that keeping the utility bill the same will bring much joy to the Laurinburg citizen. Especially since council explained that when they raised the water rate 35 percent in 2015 they would one day reduce it (they haven’t).
What council doesn’t want you to know is that they are not reducing utilities in order to have enough money to get approval to build their new city hall. The new city hall will be paid for 2/3 through the General Fund and 1/3 through utilities. By keeping utilities high, they can not only keep the oversized fund balances they have accumulated in the utility funds, but, through creative accounting practices, can also build up the money in the General Fund. The General Fund gets its money through the Laurinburg property tax. But the current taxes collected are not enough to pay for all the General Fund expenses(Police, Fire, Beautification etc.) So council was faced with two bad choices, using fund balance (which might harm their application for the $10 million loan) or raise taxes. Instead, council cleverly came up with another solution. Take some of the utility money and transfer it to the General Fund. For instance, in the proposed budget, 80 percent of the city manager’s salary is being charged to utility funds and only 20 percent to the General Fund. They are doing this even though the city manager spends, at most, 20percent of his time managing the utility funds, while spending the vast majority of his time managing general fund activities (Police, Fire, Beautification, Community Development etc.). Paying 80 percent of the city manager’s salary with utility funds is questionable accounting at best and fraudulent representation at worse. The reason the State prohibits cities from using utility money for financing things things that should come from property taxes(like the majority of the city manager’s salary) is that it places an unfair burden on the poor (who tend to rent rather than own). Council is misleading the public in telling the citizens this is a good budget. It is not. it keeps utilities high (in order to fund their new city hall) and places an unfair burden on the poor through corrupt accounting. It is a budget that I, in good conscience, cannot and will not sign off on.
Contrary to the impression that columns like this one may leave, I honestly did not want to be mayor to pick fights and attack other elected officials. Rather, I wanted to be mayor to help move Laurinburg forward in an open, inclusive and progressive manner. So it is with no pleasure that I close with this very fitting Judyism to my fellow elected officials (city council and school board chair), ‘don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining’.
Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.