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Cumberland commissioners to hold budget hearing Monday

Cumberlan Co logoThe Cumberland County Board of Commissioners on Monday, June 6 will hold a special meeting to hear comments from the public regarding the recommended fiscal 2023 budget.

The proposed budget calls for nearly $553 million in total expenditures across all funds — which includes school and capital investment funds — and has a $362 million general fund.

The tax rate would remain the same at 79.9 cents per $100 property valuation.

Cumberland County estimates it will receive nearly $171 million from property taxes this fiscal year, which makes up roughly 55% of the general fund. A penny on the tax rate earns $2.4 million.

The June 6 meeting seeks public comment regarding the proposed budget. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Cumberland County Courthouse. The meeting takes place in room 118 on the main floor of the courthouse.

Historically, representatives from outside agencies seeking county funding speak at the public hearings. This year, 17 outside agencies sought public funding. The recommended budget allocates $486,042 to outside agencies, the same amount as in the fiscal 2022 budget and $142,827 less than requested.

Initially, of the 17 agencies requesting money, the budget only allocated funds for 15 agencies. The North Carolina Symphony Society and Cumberland Health Net Inc. were not recommended for funding. However, during last Wednesday’s budget work session, board Chairman Glenn Adams requested that $30,000 of the recommended $68,000 be taken from the Arts Council to fund Cumberland Health Net, which had requested $41,000. He also asked that another $3,000 be taken from the Arts Council for the Vision Resource Center. The Vision Resource Center had asked for $10,000 but the budget allocated $7,000, the same as last year. The additional $3,000 makes the Vision Resource Center the only outside agency receiving what it had requested.

Adams said he believes because of the pandemic during the past two years, the Arts Council did not spend all of its money. Also, the Arts Council receives a portion of the county’s motel and hotel occupancy room tax, which he predicted has increased over last year.

County Manager Amy Cannon did not have those figures available at Wednesday’s (June 1) budget workshop.

The city of Fayetteville’s recommended fiscal 2023 budget allocates $75,000 for the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County to partner for community art programs.

‘Tough decisions’ in proposed Cumberland County budget

court house faytteville01 scaledMembers of Cumberland County’s staff unveiled their recommended budget to the public Thursday, setting up weeks of deliberation over how the county will spend its taxes throughout fiscal year 2023.

County Manager Amy Cannon and the rest of the county’s staff set the value of the proposed budget at just under $553 million, an increase of about 10% from the current fiscal year.

The property tax rate, which is 79.9 cents per $100 of property valuation, would remain the same. The county’s annual solid waste fee of $56 would also stay the same.

Property taxes, sales taxes, motor vehicle taxes and money from the federal and state governments are the county’s primary sources of funding for the budget — 48%, 17%, 7% and 21%, respectively.

Property tax revenue is projected to increase by more than $2 million while motor vehicle tax revenue would increase by more than $1 million in the new budget above the level of the current fiscal year.

For fiscal year 2023, the county is recommending that more than $60 million be collected in sales tax, a 4% increase in what is projected to be collected by the conclusion of fiscal year 2022 on June 30.

Even with these revenue increases, however, Cannon said during her presentation Thursday to the Board of Commissioners that overall growth in the budget is limited compared to expenditure increases.

“I had to make some tough decisions to balance this budget,” she said. “But our focus remained on three things: to maintain current services, to address unmet needs where possible within the funding available and to continue advancing the board’s strategic priorities.”

Those three priorities, laid out by Cannon, are the continued development of the Crown Event Center to replace the Crown Theatre and Arena, public water access for Gray’s Creek and addressing homelessness within the county.

To address homelessness, Cannon said the county had received $1 million from the N.C. General Assembly to construct a homeless shelter. She said the county is collaborating with the Cape Fear Valley Health System and Fayetteville Technical Community College.

‘The new normal’

Cannon said new realities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the county to push money in new directions to adapt.

“The last two years have been characterized by rapid, abrupt and constant change because of the magnitude of the pandemic,” she said. “Uncertainty continues as we transition to what I’m going to call this evening, ‘the new normal.’”

At the top of this list was inflation.

“The increased cost of goods and services and interest rate hikes will continue to reduce disposable income,” Cannon said. “Economic optimism nationally among chief financial officers has eroded in the first quarter of 2022.”

In the proposed budget, mandated increases from the state or those associated with health costs amount to $6 million.

One mandatory cost hike is the increased price of health insurance for county employees. Contributions that the county must make to the employee retirement fund have also increased.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety has required counties to increase their share of youth detention facility costs, Cannon said.

The state late last year also required that certain school employees in each county receive a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. A wage increase of 2.5% of anyone already at the $15-an-hour mark is also required.

Due in part to this, the Cumberland Board of Education requested a school budget of $88.2 million, an increase of more than $5 million from last year.

Due to the new $15-an-hour minimum, the school sought the ability to address salary compression, a situation where the difference in wages between employees of different experience levels is minimal.

However, Cannon said the county is not required to address salary compression. Therefore, the recommended school budget is lower than requested, at $84.3 million.

General increased labor costs are also a cause of increased expenses in the county budget.

Cannon said increased labor costs are a trend across the country due to the pandemic.

“It’s impacted people both mentally and physically,” she said. “It’s caused employees to reflect on their priorities and life in general. Americans are seeking better pay, but even more than that, they’re seeking flexible work schedules that create a better work-life balance.

“The Great Resignation has had an impact on all organizations. Cumberland County is not immune from this workforce crisis.”

Cumberland has experienced worker resignations, Cannon said, that have resulted in an average employee age of 44 and an average of four years of experience with the county.

To help maintain its current workers, Cumberland is incorporating a 4% cost-of-living pay increase into the proposed budget.

The county is also increasing the annual pay of entry-level detention officers and deputy sheriffs to $40,457 and $44,000, respectively, both an increase of about $2,700.

Cannon said the county conducted an analysis of the salaries among Cumberland employees. The majority of workers made close to the minimum in their salary ranges.

“Our pay structure lacks a mechanism to move people throughout their range,” she said. “From a recruitment perspective, the minimum salary by many of our grades is no longer competitive in this employee-driven market.”

To address this, the county has included a $95,000 worker study in the proposed budget as a way to determine how to best retain employees.

Cannon said the city of Fayetteville had recently conducted a similar study. In Fayetteville’s proposed budget, the city is including merit pay increases for employees, Carolina Public Press reported.

Other counties, including Harnett, Durham, Guilford, Forsyth and New Hanover, are in various stages of conducting pay studies, Cannon said.

Deliberation over next few weeks

The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners plans to conduct work sessions to discuss the recommended budget on June 1, 8, 13 and 15.

Each work session will take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Room 564.

A public hearing, where residents can voice concerns over the budget, will take place at 7 p.m. June 6 at the courthouse in Room 118.

The Board of Commissioners may hold a work session immediately following that hearing based on community feedback on the budget.

Pictured above: The Cumberland County Courthouse houses meetings of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners in downtown Fayetteville. (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press)

Fayetteville man dies after shooting at Raeford Road hookah lounge

pexels Crime tape Fayetteville police are investigating the death of a man and the wounding of two other people in a shooting at a hookah lounge early Monday.

Officers were called to Airborne Hookah Lounge in the 5000 block of Raeford Road about 2:15 a.m. Monday, according to a news release from the Fayetteville Police Department.

They found a woman with life-threatening injuries from a gunshot wound, the release said. Two other people also had been shot during the incident. One was in a vehicle on Raeford Road, and the other was at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, the release said.

Antwain Maurice Hoskins, 22, of the 500 block of Trust Drive, died from his injuries at the hospital, the release said.

Detectives determined that there was a disturbance outside the lounge before the shootings. One victim was treated at the hospital and released. The third victim remains in stable condition at the hospital. Their identities were withheld.

The Fayetteville Police Department’s Homicide Unit is investigating the shootings and asks that witnesses or anyone with photographs or videos from the scene contact Detective S. Shirey at 910-751-3009 or CrimeStoppers at 910-483-TIPS (8477).

Reaction to new name for Fort Bragg mixed among veterans, activists

FOrt Bragg sign The prospect of a new name for Fort Bragg is getting mixed reviews from veterans and civil rights leaders in Fayetteville.

A federal commission tasked by Congress with recommending new names for military installations named for Confederate officers has suggested that Fort Bragg become Fort Liberty.

That’s fine with Jimmy Buxton, president of the Fayetteville branch of the NAACP.

“It’s somewhat mind-boggling that they came up with ‘Liberty,’” said Buxton, who was invited to share his input when representatives of the naming commission visited Fort Bragg in the fall for feedback.

“I knew it had to be changed,” Buxton said. “I think I can live with Fort Liberty - what ‘liberty’ stands for. And it’s what Fort Bragg has stood for for years. It brings a pretty good meaning to Fort Bragg.”

Buxton said he didn’t have a suggestion for a new name, but one of the men whose name he would have liked to be seriously considered was Gen. Roscoe Robinson, the first African American to command the 82nd Airborne Division.

Retired Army Gen. Dan McNeill, former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said he thinks the commission chose wisely, considering all the suggestions it had.

"If you named it after a person, which person would you have picked?” he asked. “If you picked one, as opposed to groups of others, you would have left others behind.”

McNeill said the commission spoke to a lot of diverse people while seeking feedback from the community.

"It was a good job of assembling a wide array of people," he said. "By the time the last meeting occurred, they all seemed to agree on ‘Liberty.’ A name is what caused this problem to start with. When someone said ‘Liberty,’ it made a lot of sense to me."

The naming commission announced its recommendations last week. They will be forwarded to Congress and, if approved, to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who will have the ultimate authority to rename the installations.

Fort Bragg, with more than 53,000 troops, is home to the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Forces.

The post, which opened in 1918 as a field artillery station, was named after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, a North Carolina native. The Army artillery officer was known for his role in the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, Mexico. He later served as a Confederate general and was a slave owner.

Troy Williams, a legal analyst and criminal defense investigator, said at this point, he doesn’t see the renaming of Fort Bragg as a big deal.

Williams served in the Air Force from 1973 through 1977.

“I don’t like the Fort Liberty name,” Williams said. “It’s not going to sit well with some people. At this point, this far into the game, it’s a moot point … to change this because they were Confederate officers.”

Williams questioned when all the name changing would end in a period of political correctness. He said some military installations are named after Union Army leaders who “slaughtered native Indians” and the buffalo they hunted.

“They were slaughtering these people. They’ve got stuff named after them,” he said. “My challenge is, are we going to change everything?”
Williams doesn’t like the proposed name.

“If we’re going to come up with a name, at least make it a name that honors people,” he said. “Fort Liberty – what the heck is that? We honored Bragg all these years, and now we can’t honor another person?”

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., whose district includes Fort Bragg, has suggested that its association with Confederate Gen. Bragg instead be with Bragg's cousin, Union Army Gen. Edward S. Bragg of Wisconsin, as a compromise.

Most historians rate Edward Bragg as the better military leader.

William Greene, 59, the quartermaster of VFW Post 10630 in Hope Mills, served five years in the reserve before serving on active duty in the Army from 1985 to 2005.

Greene agrees with Hudson.

“To me, personally, I’d call it Fort Bragg after the Union guy,” Greene said. “The Confederate general – they’ve got to get rid of that. All the Confederate history.”

But changing the name would be costly, he said.

“You’re talking a lot of money,” Greene said. “I don’t know how you’ll raise those funds to rename the roads, all the signs. Keep it simple, anyway, so we can save money.”

The name “Liberty” would reflect “all the things going on at Fort Bragg,” he said.

“I’m just trying to save some money,” he said.

Grilley Mitchell, 67, president of the Cumberland County Veterans Council, had a 20-year Army career that ended in 1993.

“You know what? They have already made the decision,” he said. “I have no opinion. … They’re going to do what they want to do. We just get in line with the marching orders. That’s the reality of things. The military makes the decisions.”

Mitchell said he’s on record saying that the post should remain Fort Bragg but named for Edward Bragg.

“He was an ambassador, a true patriot for the Union,” he said. “I thought there was a better option. Think of the money that was going to be saved.

“The young may call it Fort Liberty,” he said. “For us, the old school, it will always be Fort Bragg. If you told anyone you were from North Carolina, they say, ‘Fort Bragg.’ They know Fort Bragg. This should be an opinion made by soldiers who served in the military and their families and not the politicians.”

The federal commission recommended new names for eight other Army installations. Fort Bragg is the only one that would not be named after a person.

Memorial Day program at Freedom Memorial Park pays tribute to those who sacrificed

veterans ParkAs friends and family gather for the holiday to grill or enjoy the beach, Col. Scott Pence reminded people to stop and think about the families who will have an empty seat at the table on Memorial Day.

Pence, 46, is Fort Bragg’s garrison commander. He was the keynote speaker Monday morning for a Memorial Day program at Freedom Memorial Park in downtown Fayetteville.

Inside the park, “All Gave Some … Some Gave All” is posted on one of the monuments. On Monday, flags were set at half-staff for the ceremony, and floral arrangements and markers had been placed in front of a podium.

“Ever since eight members of the Lexington militia lost their lives in the first battle of the American Revolution, nearly 1.2 million service members – soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen – have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Pence told those who were seated on the bleachers and in folding chairs. “We are reminded that the world remains a very dangerous place and that our soldiers are in harm’s way all across the globe.’’

Approximately 300 people attended the service to remember those who sacrificed their lives in the call of duty. The program – organized by veteran Don Talbot, the commander of Purple Heart Chapter 2226 – incorporated patriotic music, a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace,” wreath presentations representing World War I up to the Global War on Terror, and the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry Company.

Pence first spoke of the family of Dalia Munoz, a teenager attending high school in Fayetteville. She remembers hearing the doorbell ring, and the men delivering the news of her father’s death, Pence said. Her father was a former Golden Knight and member of the Special Forces.

The year was 2005, just four years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

From that day on, Pence said, Dalia’s life forever changed.

Among others who have fallen, Fayetteville High School graduate and Eagle Scout Henry T. MacGill barely spent two weeks in Korea before he was gunned down by North Korean forces in 1950, Pence said. Only a few years before his death, he had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

MacGill was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – the Army’s second-highest decoration for valor. The citation reads that MacGill repeatedly put his life at risk to save his men.

Pence evoked the names of others who died while serving their country, including Master Sgt. Ralph Joseph Reno, who went missing in Vietnam on July 3, 1966, when his helicopter crashed into the mountains of Quang Nam province.
It would be 2011 before Army officials identified his remains and declared the 38-year-olf Reno killed in action.

“Take a look around these sacred grounds of Freedom Park,” Pence said. “The memorials here are a gentle reminder of those brave men and women who raised their hand to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. These monuments represent the sacrifices of those men and women – and it represents the sacrifices of the families who are left behind.”

Pence talked about a unique bond between the military and civilian communities.

“When we lose one of our own,” he said, “our entire town mourns. We come together to support one another. … We are a community who takes great pride to be home to the thousands of men and women in uniform.”

As a final example of that empty seat at the table on Memorial Day, Pence recalled Earl G. Dawkins, who served with the Army Air Force’s 444th Bomber Squadron, 320 Bomber Group. As he and his crew were on their way to Dijon, France, in November 1944, an unexpected storm caused his Martin B-26 Marauder to crash, taking the lives of Dawkins and his crew, Pence said.

Dawkins’ name is listed on a plaque with others who died near the crash site in the village of Plottes, France. It reads: “They died far away from their country because they came to help liberate ours.”

So, Pence concluded, “As we gather with friends and family, let us remember that Memorial Day is a time to honor our commitment to never forget those who served and sacrificed for America. And today, we do that once again.”

Ann Provencher, who is with the Rolling Thunder North Carolina Chapter 1, spoke during the program on the Missing Man Table, a symbolic gesture that pays tribute to the nation's POWs, MIAs and all of those who did not return while in service.

"Their patriotism, love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good makes them all true heroes," she said. "We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never wholly be paid."

Ryan Jackson, 24, of Fayetteville, attended the ceremony with his grandfather, 60-year-old Army veteran Tim Katetianes.

“It’s a day of memory. Reflection,” Jackson said from the bleachers. “A day of empathy.”

Bruce Tyson, 72, of Fayetteville, called the Memorial Day program “extra special” as he left the park.

“It’s good to see so many come out,” he said. “More people are involved in grilling and beach travel. It’s warm but tolerable. I’m here because someone went somewhere else and sacrificed.”

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