Madison County commissioners are close to finalizing the county’s 2014 budget.
The group met for several hours on the budget Friday and will hold a public hearing Dec. 19 to get input from citizens on proposed revenues and expenses.
The proposed total budget is up slightly from this year, from $13,594,791 to $13,920,582 in total expenses, an increase of 2.4 percent. Meanwhile, expected revenues are up slightly from $12,954,333 to $13,065,800 an increase of less than one percent.
Commissioners kept this year’s tax rates steady, but the county will bring in slightly more in property tax revenue, from $6,503,698 to $6,664,159 due to a small increase in the county’s digest, or overall property value.
The expected expenses in 2014 exceed anticipated expenses by $854,782. This shortfall will be covered with the county’s cash reserves. In recent years, the board has maintained reserves of around $5 million, but the reserves will likely be closer to $4 million at year’s end, since the commissioners agreed to fund over $1 million in road projects and patrol vehicle purchases from reserves this year.
This reserve balance will still far exceed the state’s recommended minimum of 15 percent of the general fund budget.
BOC chairman Anthony Dove said he and the board have tried to maintain a healthy reserve balance of around 30-to-40 percent of the general fund budget in recent years to protect the county in case of a natural disaster or another financial calamity.
“I just think in today’s world, where things can happen very quickly, you could need those reserves in a disaster or in a drop in the economy,” said Dove. “I think you need to have that in government just like in a household. That’s just my conservative nature.”
Next year’s general fund budget includes no layoffs, no furlough days and no capital outlay projects, such as new vehicle purchases or construction projects. However, several purchases and projects are planned in 2014 with special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) funding, such as public safety vehicles and the upcoming expansion of the county jail. SPLOST money and general operating funds are maintained separately.
The most debated issue in recent budget talks was whether to approve any pay increases for county employees. The group voted recently to provide a one-time cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the roughly 175 county employees, who haven’t received cost-of-living increases in about five years. This move cost the county roughly $160,000, which will be applied to the 2013 budget and pulled from reserves. This is a $900 one-year pay hike — or bonus — for all full-time employees. Part timers receive a percentage of that. For instance, 50 percent workers received a $450 bonus.
The board voted 3-1 in favor of the action. Jim Escoe was not at that meeting due to a family health matter and John Pethel provided the lone “No.” Those voting “Yes” said the county employees have worked hard to keep expenses down in recent years and have put the county in good financial shape. They said the employees have gone without raises for a long time. Pethel said he’d like to see employees get raises, but that the county already covers insurance for employees at a cost of roughly $1 million a year, a benefit that has received unanimous board support. Pethel said this is a perk that should be appreciated employees and he said raises would be too hard on taxpayers.
Dove noted that county employees do have their insurance covered by the county government, but employees’ families aren’t covered and the workers with a family plans have endured insurance increases in recent years.
Likewise, Dove said most counties offer insurance coverage for elected officials, but that’s not the case in Madison County, where elected officials don’t qualify for county coverage.
While cost-of-living increases were a major point of debate, most all department heads and constitutional officers requested pay increases for employees under their supervision.
Most notably, Sheriff Kip Thomas asked the board to help him create some separation in his office between newly hired deputies and supervisors. Thomas noted that without some separation between those new on the job and those with supervisor responsibilities, maintaining a good staff will be hard in years to come, because there won’t be clear incentives for employees to take on more duties.
“It’s just something we’ve got to do,” said Thomas of establishing some pay separation. “Those guys (supervisors) have a lot put on them and we need to appreciate them.”
The increases would be applied to 21 employees out of approximately 70 in the department at a total cost of $74,778. County commissioners ultimately agreed to allow Thomas to make those wage changes, but they wanted the money to be pulled from elsewhere in his budget. In an unrelated matter, the board agreed to increase the pay of chief registrar Tracy Dean, who is now also the county board of elections chairman and charged with numerous legal responsibilities related to county elections. The pay for her position will be boosted from around $33,000 to $40,000.