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Fulton County faced with $100,000 general fund deficit

Monday, August 22, 2011

After voting July 19 to move ahead with a plan for a $2 million dollar jail, Fulton County Quorum Court is dealing with a $100,000 shortfall in its general fund, and raising the possibility some county employees may have to be laid off.

"This time of the year, county general usually runs short," said County Judge Charles Willett at the August 8 Quorum Court meeting. "Anticipated revenue is down right now by about $100,000. Sales tax (collection) is down."

While quorum court routinely adjusts its budget to make up for shortages, County Treasurer Donna Hall told The News she does not ever recall a shortfall this large.

"When we did this budget last fall, the economy was starting to turn around," said Justice of the Peace Jim Bicker, "and we did fine until, what? February and gas prices went through the roof and everybody just shut down (their spending)."

Other county officials agreed sales tax collections are lagging because the national economic recovery has stalled.

"The county, we operate on the money generated when they buy things and they are just not buying things, and I don't blame them," Bicker added.

Until sales tax income picks up, quorum court members have no choice but to cut spending. They began by reviewing each county department's budget and bank accounts.

When asked if he had any thoughts where cuts could be made, Sheriff Buck Foley replied, "Don't look at me," explaining his office is barely breaking even because of the cost of housing inmates, especially inmates that have to be housed at the Izard County Detention Facility.

The money which looks most promising to JPs is in "automation funds" belonging to the county clerk, treasurer, tax assessor and collector.

As county officials collect fees for services they provide, the state gives them a percentage of the total. It is to be used to help the offices buy supplies, upgrade equipment and conduct day to day operations.

County Clerk Vicki Bishop explained to the court a portion of her current automation fund money is needed to upgrade office systems. She added money in the fund cannot, legally, be transferred to the general fund.

Assessor Brad Schauffler told JPs that the automation fund reduces the amount of general fund money needed to run county offices.

"To me, you're jumping on the automation fund, right off the bat. I don't think that is going to fix the problem," said Schauffler. "While anticipated revenue stays down, we're in the same boat six months, three months, two months from now."

"If you're going to (use automation funds) to fix stuff, you're going to have to let people go," Bicker replied.

When Schoffler said he would look for ways to cut expenditures, Bicker again said, with revenues down, it is either cut spending or reduce employees.

"We would like to avoid putting people out on the street," said Bicker. "That just exasperates an already difficult situation."

Tax Collector Calvin "Buster" Smith told JPs that he would soon help the financial situation because money coming in September and October, the real estate tax collection season, "is going to be substantial."

JPs pointed out they get only a small portion of property tax revenue.

Treasurer Hall confirmed about six percent goes into the general fund.

"I'm expecting to bring in about $2 million, that's, $120,000 (for the general fund), right?" said Smith.

The county officials agreed to come back next month with suggestions on ways they can cut spending.

While automation funds cannot be transferred directly to the general fund, Judge Willett suggested, "See if you may pay a salary or two out of the automation funds for a couple of months."

Currently the county road fund receives 60 percent of the sales tax split and the general fund receives 40 percent.

JP Jack Haney suggested switching the percentages, giving the general fund 60 precent of the revenue to help boost it, during this difficult time.

No action was taken on that suggestion.

At a special meeting July 19, quorum court members expressed concerns about using sales tax money that goes into the general fund to help make payments on a new jail.

"I don't want to put county general in a bad situation because of the jail," said Haney at the special meeing.

Members were told, once the new jail opened, there would be a big reduction in the amount of money being spent to house prisoners in Izard County, money that currently comes from the general fund.

The county then approved an October 11 special election, which will ask voters to approve spending a portion of the county's existing sales tax along with sales tax revenue pledged by Fulton County cities.

County officials emphasize voters will not be voting on a new tax; the election will, simply, change how a one cent sales tax, already in effect, will be distributed.

In the meantime, quorum court is hoping the economy will improve and sales tax collections will pick up, easing the current general fund deficit.

In other business during the meeting, quorum court approved a new rule prohibiting video taping of its meetings (see accompanying article on page 10A).

It also approved a Sturkie Fire Department request to apply for a grant for a new pumper truck and radios, approved giving $22,987 in energy grant money to the Fulton County Hospital to pay for a new heating and air conditioning system, approved $52,113 for a new generator system for the Agnos water pumping station and $5,813 to pay for an air conditioning repair at the Health Unit.

The next Fulton County Quorum Court meeting will be held on September 12 at 7 p.m. at the courthouse.

The public is invited to attend.

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