Funding deficits caused tempers to flare at the Clay County Commission 2018 budget hearings last week on Thursday and Friday as Commissioners scrambled to make the necessary cuts needed to keep the county out of the red before the looming deadline. After being informed the 2018 budget needed to be trimmed by over 150,000, Commissioners asked each department head to cut at least 5% of their budget. In response to this, Sheriff Ray Latham cut his department’s budget by some $63,000, which provided some cushion to those final numbers.
There also seemed to be a lot of confusion over the exact amount that needed cutting from the new budget, with the Commissioners saying that they were given two sets of figures. County Administrator Mary Wood and Administrator Assistant Nina Bell tried to explain that this was because they had went back and made the cuts the Commissioners had asked for on the second set of figures presented to them, but the numbers still didn’t seem to adding up, which added to the frustration of the day. At one point on Thursday’s meeting, Wood told the Commissioners that she had done all she could do to the budget, that they could do what they wanted. Wood wasn’t present for Friday’s meeting.
Probate Judge Dianne Branch addressed the Commission with her contribution to the cutbacks, stating that she would pay the newest hired employee out of her discretionary fund, which brought on a whole new set of arguments. There had already been a lot of controversy surrounding this hire in the past few weeks, because Commissioners were not happy that Branch had not followed the standard hiring procedures put into place by the county. After some discussion, Branch did agree to advertise the position for one week.
There were many topics discussed as Commissioners went down the list of line items, such as transportation for the elderly, election expenses, the cost of workman’s comp per department, employee insurance, and the EMA Assistant role.
There was also the question of the high cost of utilities throughout the county offices. It was reported that the county spent as much as $120,000 yearly in utilities for all offices combined. The electrical bill at the courthouse, which runs around $3500 monthly, and the natural gas bill, which can run as high as $560 a month in the coldest winter months that heats the courtroom. The Revenue Commissioner does pay 20% of all utilities for the courthouse. It was noted that the Annex electrical bill ran around $6000 a month and was open 24/7, due to the Sheriff’s Office and Jail, whereas the Courthouse was only open 40 hours a week.
Morrison stated they were just going to have to start looking into closing the courthouse at some point, due to several reasons. “There just too many costs associated with keeping this building up and it’s going to get to the point where we have to cut some vital services to the citizens or we’re going to have to cut some expenses somewhere in the county. A money pit like that needs to be with the historical society, not a functioning building in my opinion,” said Morrison.
The Annex has recently added 13 offices to their facility, with ample space left for a couple of courtrooms, which could house several county departments, if needed.
Morrison said that after asking each department head to cut their budget by 5%, he was disheartened that the only department who had willingly done that was the Sheriff’s Office and these were vital services. ” How much more can you cut that? We just can’t hacking into this department. We’re going to have to come up with some creative solutions.”
“There was nowhere else to cut 5% from those departments. We can encourage the savings of utilities, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have to pay” said Bell.
On a final note before the vote was taken, Harris summed it up:” This budget is going to have to be cut and its not going to be pretty. Our job is simple, we take the money we get and do we can do. We may have to cut some things that seem trivial to some of us. I think one of the things we need to do is look at cutting travel expenses and we’ll look into this a little later. I think spending 35-40,000 a year on travel and expenses and cut that. These cuts are going to be painful for some of us.”
“Next year, there’s not going to be a fund balance there if we are short,” Morrison added” I’m very disheartened to see our employees have to go back to paying their insurance because of how little they make. Next year, don’t come in here wanting us to make them pay all their insurance to make the fund balance work because that ain’t happening. We’ll just cut employees and take care of the ones we got.”
In the end, some of the cuts made included the following:
- Eliminate courthouse security employees, saving $37,000. Security will be handled by the Sheriff’s Office on an as-needed basis.
- EMA Assistant position from full-time to part-time. (Commissioner Milstead abstained)
- All county employees will now have to pay 20% of their medical insurance, instead of being 100% paid as it had been in the past. Family coverage will remain at 40% paid by county, with the employee portion at 60%.
The total county budget for fiscal year 2018 totaled $7,223,342.20, down from $7, 907,662.00 from 2017. This over $600,000 difference from the previous year is due to a steep decrease in revenues coming into the county from a federal and state level, which has led to these budget cuts. But where the revenues shortage is really affecting is the General Fund, where the budgeted expenses for FY 2018 total $2,900,032, and the revenues are only $2,800,012.
Commissioners cast their unanimous vote to accept the 2018 budget by a unanimous show of hands. This deficit of approximately $119,000 in expenses will be taken from the county’s reserve fund that they are required by the state to keep. However, this fund only has approximately $200,000 in it, so having to pull funds of this magnitude from it will almost deplete it.
Not to mention, if the county loses the lawsuit against State Senator Gerald Dial regarding a percentage of the county’s tobacco tax to be allocated to the Clay County Animal Shelter in the amount of $50,000, this deficit will go higher. This ruling is set to be handed down at any time by Judge Rochester at the Clay County District Court, but the budget had to passed, so it will have to be amended when the ruling comes in, The county did budget in the $5,000 to the Clay County Animal Shelter at this time.
“What we’re going to have to do is elect somebody into a state office who is going to help us generate income, because we don’t have that now. In the past, it’s just one thing after another getting taken away from us and now we’re down to this,” said Morrison.