Local leaders face an approximate $1 million shortfall between projected revenues and expenses in next year’s county government budget. And Madison County commissioners want county department heads to shave five percent off their expenses for 2015.
The group will meet again at 9 a.m., Sept. 17, to discuss what cuts local department heads and constitutional officers propose.
The board has met several times in recent weeks to discuss next year’s budget. The group talked again last week about how to tackle the revenue shortfall. The 2015 budget includes $13.25 million in projected revenue versus $14.27 million in total expenses.
Once again, the group has decided not to increase the tax burden on local property owners. With a slight increase in the county’s digest — overall property value — the BOC could have left its tax rates steady and raised another $100,000 in tax revenues. But the commissioners are rolling their tax rates back slightly to wipe out that potential revenue gain.
The board is also facing increased health insurance costs for county employees in 2015. The county pays approximately $1 million to insure its employees and that expense will be up roughly $100,000 next year. Likewise, the state government mandated one-percent pay increases for all constitutionally elected officers. The board always ties county pay to the state. Since local elected officials are required by law to get the one-percent raise, the BOC provides all employees the same benefit. This will add roughly $60,000 to next year’s budget.
Madison County commissioners have the option of dipping into the county’s cash reserves to cover the entire budget shortfall. They group has had a sizable cash balance in recent years to deal with budget shortfalls. But the group has also used that reserve fund to cover the costs of several projects. And commissioners express reluctance to pull too much from reserves to cover operating expenses. That’s the group’s big dilemma now — make cuts or pull from a dwindling cash fund.
The county’s cash reserve fund has gone as high as $6 million in recent years. The board established a big cash cushion in 2010 when tax sales added about $2.1 million to the reserve fund. The tax sales were scheduled to force delinquent property taxes to be paid.
Since that time, the board has faced budget shortfalls every year and had to plan for use of reserve funds to balance the budget each year. In 2011, the board planned to use $478,493 out of reserves but ended up needing to pull $379,097 to cover the budget costs. This included the purchase of three buildings in Lakeview Business Park off Rock Quarry Road. Commissioners who voted for the plan agreed that the buildings came at a bargain price, with one of the structures providing a new home for Fine Finish, which serves developmentally challenged adults. Without the purchase of the buildings, the BOC would have actually added to its reserve funds that year. In 2012, the board planned to use $404,006 from its cash balance and ended up needing $433,530 to balance the budget. The following year, 2013, the group planned to use $1,195,558 from cash reserves to balance the budget, but the group needed $487,687. This included $694,561 in road projects approved by the BOC that year. The board then projected $1,142,332 to be pulled from reserves this year, but the actual amount used won’t be determined until the year is over.
If the board makes no cuts to the 2015 budget, then they’ll have to plan to pull $1,024,949 out of reserves next year. So how much cash would that leave in the county government’s hands at the end of next year?
Well, that number is not clear year yet. But commission chairman Anthony Dove said he thinks it would be between $3 million and $4 million.
“The lowest I’d like to have it at is $4 million, but I’d rather it be about $5 million,” said Dove.
The chairman said the shortfall needs to be addressed, but he said the county is not in dire straits financially.
“We’re still in good shape if we do some things now and clamp down for next year and stay on top of it,” said Dove.
The chairman said he wants the BOC to adopt a “fiscal letter” policy, which would require department heads to provide a plan for paying for their projects when proposing new expenses to the BOC.
County commissioners talked last week about implementing some cuts in holiday pay for county employees, but the group took no action on the proposal.
The board also heard from fellow member John Pethel, who presented several proposed cuts that would eliminate roughly $120,000 from next year’s budget. Pethel suggested that the board reduce the following positions from full time to 30 hours per week: assistant recreation department director, assistant 9-1-1 director, county purchasing agent and a building inspections position. He proposed that the county not fill a vacancy in the tax office and eliminate $50,000 in overtime funding for EMS. He also included possible furloughs for all employees for three days a month.
“I knew there needed to be more, but I thought the other commissioners would make suggestions,” said Pethel.
The District 4 representative said he feels the board is pulling too much money from cash reserves each year and that the board is not cutting enough from the budget to be fair to taxpayers.
“I think the government has gotten too big; we’re trying to keep up with Clarke County and Oconee County and we can’t do that,” he said.
Pethel and commissioner Mike Youngblood had some contentious words during last week’s budget meeting.
Youngblood said Pethel hadn’t done enough homework on his proposed cuts.
“He went a little too extreme with it without investigating it and seeing what was available,” said Youngblood of Pethel’s proposals.
Youngblood said he wants to see what cuts department heads and constitutional officers can make to help trim the shortfall. But he emphasized that he doesn’t want public safety to get shortchanged in the budget.
“I’m certainly against cutting public safety,” said Youngblood, adding that it’s imperative to maintain quality public safety services.
Youngblood also said he doesn’t like seeing the county’s cash reserve fund diminished.
“I’d like to maintain what we have in the past,” he said. “I know we’re slowly dipping in and that figure is getting low.”
He added that the key to the county’s long-term fiscal health is commercial growth.
“We have to get more businesses here,” he said.