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The money squeeze: $400K more slashed

The Baker County Commission, grappling with the same dilemma its dealt with for the past few years, is once again trying to figure out how to balance a new budget when projected expenses exceed income from state and local revenue sources.

But the board got a pretty good start on it this week. During a three-hour workshop on the afternoon of August 27, commissioners and County Manager C.J. Thompson cut nearly $400,000 from a proposed $24.6 million budget.

That still leaves a $1.6 million deficit to be filled with additional revenue, or eliminated by spending cuts. However, Mr. Thompson said county departments had already absorbed significant budget cuts and didn’t know how much more slashing they could take.

“I’m happy with my department heads,” he said. “There are some departments that can’t be cut (any further).”

The next round of budget talks will begin at 3 pm on September 4.

A list of the reductions made by the county manager to trim the deficit included the elimination of $197,600 in contingency funding, $50,000 by removing two proposed new trucks in the road department, $39,000 by not filling an open road department position and $49,050 by eliminating a new Emergency Medical Services lieutenant position.

 

“I still think the positions are needed; it’s just not feasible in this current budget,” Mr. Thompson told commissioners.

Another $45,500 was saved by cutting the hours of operation at the library (four hours weekly) and at the county’s solid waste collection sites (seven hours weekly).

Commissioners said they were pleased with the progress made this week but believe more work must be done on the budget before the current fiscal year ends September 30. If no additional fat can be removed the county would be left with the undesirable option of going back to the reserve fund to balance the budget.

The county transferred about $1.7 million from reserves two years ago and another $2.2 million last year to balance the budgets. Officials said the county presently has about $7.8 million in readily available cash, which they contend is a much better reserve cushion than many counties have.

But using reserve funds, officials vow, will be a last resort. First, additional cuts will be sought, including more from two constitutional officers who did not reach the commission’s requested 10 percent budget reductions.

Property Appraiser Tim Sweat reduced his budget request by only 3.54 percent, from $514,109 to $495,902, and Sheriff Joey Dobson cut his budget proposal 8.49 percent, down from $3.5 million to $3.2 million. Commission Chairman Gordon Crews said both officers will be invited to attend the budget workshop next week to explain why they didn’t hit the 10 percent mark.

Mr. Crews said he discussed the matter with both constitutional officers and felt confident that the sheriff would make further cuts to reach the 10 percent target. But he didn’t feet the same about Mr. Sweat.

“Tim is pretty set on his budget,” he said.

Later during the workshop, Commissioner Adam Giddens said if the sheriff can absorb the cuts in his budget the property appraiser should be able to do it too.

“If the sheriff said he could do 10 percent I’m a fan of telling him to do 10 percent,” Mr. Giddens said.

Under state law, county governments control the purse strings and if there is a conflict with a constitutional officer on a budget the issue can be taken to the governor’s office to resolve. Commissioners said they hope it doesn’t come to that to get a budget approved for the property appraiser’s office.

When the workshop began at 3 pm the county manager’s proposed general fund budget, which finances most county government services and functions, stood at $7,124,062, which was only 4.67 percent lower than current spending. By the end of the meeting the budget had been trimmed to $6,726,712 — 9.98 percent.

Several other scenarios were discussed to increase revenue or decrease expenses, including increasing the $55 annual fire protection assessment to $60, asking those who provide contracted services, including the county attorney and county auditors, to take a 10 percent pay cut, and putting most employees on furlough.

“I’d rather do that (furlough) than see one person lose their job,” Mr. Crews said. “The last thing I think the board wants to do is be hard on the employees.”

Officials said the fire assessment hasn’t been increased in years and is one of the lowest in the state.

“Union County’s (fire assessment) is $125 a year,” said Clerk of Court Al Fraser. “We’re the cheapest around.”

Mr. Thompson said a $5 increase per household would cover a projected deficit of $25,625 in the county’s volunteer fire fighting force.

“We’re still bare bones in that area,” Mr. Crews said. “I don’t favor cutting the fire department budget.”

As the end of the workshop drew near, officials agreed that the county must look for ways to revamp its operations to become more efficient and must be willing to adapt to changes in order to meet the economic challenges brought about by declining revenues, including falling property taxes.

“We need to think outside the box,” Mr. Crews said. “A lot of things are going to change. A lot of things are changing.”

One thing that evidently will not change is the county’s current property tax rate, also known as “millage,” which commissioners said likely will remain at $7.15 for each $1,000 of assessed property value. The county manager said the deficit could be wiped out by hiking the tax rate to about $9.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but the political will to do that is lacking.

“You could adjust the millage to get out of it but I haven’t heard anybody propose it,” Mr. Thompson said.

Commissioners, especially in a reelection year, are loathe to increase the tax rate even though declining property values will generate 5.24 percent less tax revenue for the county in the coming year. The total tax levy next year will be an estimated $5,232,243, or about $289,527 less than last year.

The county could establish what is known as a “roll back rate,” the rate necessary to generate the same amount of tax revenue as the previous year. While not likely this year, Mr. Crews said the day is probably not far off when the county will have to do that.

“I think the roll back rate is going to be a reality in the next year or two,” he said.

Commissioner Giddens agreed that increasing the tax rate to the roll back amount may have to be considered next year. Meanwhile, he said, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to cut our way out of the (deficit) problem either.”

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