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County to pay up front for inmate housing, saving $120,000

Baker County commissioners are one step away from adopting a $28.2 million budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, including a new method of paying for county jail inmate care that officials say will save taxpayers up to $200,000 a year.

The proposed budget was unanimously endorsed during a meeting on the afternoon of September 17, following a workshop to discuss a plan with the City of Macclenny to pave Buck Starling Road adjacent to the 10-acre site of a future public transportation center operated by the Council on Aging.

A final public hearing and adoption of the new spending plan, which holds the line on taxes and fees and was balanced by a roughly $1.5 million transfer from the county’s dwindling reserve fund, is scheduled for 6 pm on October 2 — one day after the new fiscal year begins.

Included in the $28,213,239 budget is $3,782,945 for county jail inmate care, which the commission in the past has paid in advance quarterly payments in exchange for a discount of about $80,000 a year. By paying the entire amount up front, as Sheriff Joey Dobson proposed two weeks ago, officials said the county could save up to an additional $120,000 a year.

After the sheriff pitched his idea to the board on September 4, Commission Chairman Gordon Crews noted that the plan enables the county to balance the budget without having to take quite as much out of reserves to fix a projected $1.6 million deficit.

The additional $120,000 in savings, Mr. Crews said, would require a transfer of only $1.48 million from reserves to balance the budget instead of $1.6 million. As of August 27, the reserve fund held about $7.8 million.

“We’re going to have to pay for the inmates anyway,” said the commission chairman. “If we can save another $120,000 by paying early, I’m all for it.”

The payment plan is based on an average daily projected inmate population of 130. If the average number is higher at the end of the year the county will have to pay more; conversely, if the head count goes down there will be a refund.

“We reconcile quarterly now,” said Brian Bishop, the sheriff’s director of administration. “Sometimes we owe them (county) money back and sometimes they owe us more.”

During the meeting with the county board two weeks ago, Mr. Bishop said the proposed new payment plan would bring “close to a 5 percent discount,” which would increase the total potential savings to the county to about $200,000 next year.

The reason the county gets a discount is that the jail operations could use the increased cash flow to generate greater savings of its own, which “could be passed on to the county,” Mr. Bishop said.

Commissioners met twice in budget workshops prior to the first public hearing on the budget this week, during which there were no comments from the audience and very little discussion among board members.

They contended previously they had made all the cuts they felt comfortable making and were steadfastly opposed to any tax or fee increases to help balance the budget. Members also expressed a desire to refrain from dipping into reserves in the future, while conceding that might not be possible.

On a positive note for county employees, no jobs were lost and no one will be forced to take “furlough” days off without pay as had been considered recently. However, for the third year in a row the budget contains no money for employee pay raises.

The total millage is 7.1495, which translates to about $7.15 for every $1,000 of assessed property valuation. The county manager said the value of a mill has decreased in the past year from $772,329 to $731,833 due to declining property values.

Although the county has held tight on the property tax rate in recent years, commissioners have said they can’t promise the trend will continue much longer.

“I think the roll back rate is going to be a reality in the next year or two,”  Chairman Crews said during the September 4 board meeting, referring to the rate that would be necessary to generate the same amount of revenue as was raised the previous year before property values declined further.

The total budget for 2012-13 includes revenues of $13.9 million for the general fund, up from $12.4 last year; $7.8 million for the fine and forfeiture fund, which is about $150,000 higher; and $2.4 million for the road and bridge fund, a decrease of $250,000.

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