Fulton County Quorum Court struggles with budget shortfalls
As it deals with a $100,000 budget shortfall this fiscal year, the Fulton County Quorum Court learned at an Oct. 17 meeting it faces the same problem next fiscal year.
The court and county department heads spent three and a half hours looking for solutions, after going into session to first handle regular monthly business.
"First budget report, County Judge's office," said County Judge Charles Willett, as the budget portion of the meeting began.
Right away, there was bad fiscal news.
"The only thing that has changed in our budget (Judge's office), right now, we are looking at an increase in our health insurance and, also, our retirement," Willett told Justices of the Peace.
According to Willett, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the county's current health insurance provider, intends to raise its rates by 18 percent next year, after raising rates 22 1/2 percent this year.
That means health insurance coverage paid out of the general fund will go up by $23,000 next fiscal year to cover county employees and their families.
Willett has asked two other insurance companies for quotes to see if cheaper rates are available elsewhere.
The county will also have to pay more into the state retirement system next year. The rate per employee has been increased by one percent.
The Sheriff's budget, which was discussed next, gave J-Ps a glimpse of how the county's financial problems will greatly worsen if a finance plan for a new jail is not approved by voters on Nov. 8.
Sheriff Buck Foley pointed out that the $35,000 budgeted this year to house Fulton County jail inmates in other jails was used up long ago.
The actual amount spent to house prisoners elsewhere is between $60 and $70,000, through September.
For the next fiscal year, Foley proposed $200,000 be budgeted, an amount that shocked J-Ps, even though they had been warned about a big increase before.
"You're assuming you're not going to have a jail, is that what you're assuming?" J-P Jim Bickers asked.
"If we don't have a jail, that's what we'll have to do (pay other jails)," Foley replied. "If we do have a jail, I can cut that out of there."
According to Foley, state officials have told him Fulton County's current jail, which has been condemned for not meeting state standards, will be ordered closed if voters turn down using a portion of an existing sales tax to make construction loan payments. If voters approve the measure, the state will allow the current jail to remain open while a new jail is being built.
"We just need to make sure the jail (vote) passes," Judge Willett told the court.
Knowing the county already faces cuts to balance its budget next year, Bickers said of the $200,000 line item to house prisoners, "I don't think we can leave that in there (in the new budget), right now."
"Okay, cut it out," Foley responded.
Other J-Ps agreed to leave next year's amount to house inmates in other counties at this year's $35,000 appropriation.
County Treasurer Donna Hall told the J-Ps that she has cut expenditures for supplies, postage, meals and lodging to try to reduce her budget for next year, but the insurance and retirement increases are hard to offset.
Tax Collector Calvin "Buster" Smith said he has cut postage expenses in his office, this year, by $3,000, as he tries to hold the line on spending. But his request for $1,500 for a part-time employee in his new budget was questioned by the court.
Assessor Brad Schaufler told the court his office "pinches every penny we can," but he has delayed replacing two 10-year old computers about as long as he can, and he is going to have to spend money to prepare for a new round of re-assessments.
That was the way it went as department heads discussed their proposals, and made assurances they have put off all new expenditures that they can.
After going through all 18 county departments and court offices, the proposed 2012 budget totaled $1,976,875.
After adding anticipated revenue, unspent 2011 money "carried over" to the new budget and "turnback" - the county's share of fuel taxes collected by the state - the county expects to take in $2,086,875 in 2012.
The bottom line is, about $100,000 needs to be cut from the proposed budget, to insure there will be enough revenue to cover planned spending.
J-P's spent the next two and a half hours looking for items to cut from budget requests.
As they shuffled through departmental budget forms, J-P Jack Haney commented, "There's not much more we can cut."
The sheriff's budget came under close scrutiny. The planned purchase of a new photocopier was questioned. Lowering the amount budgeted for deputy uniforms was suggested, as was cutting the sheriff's fuel budget and laying off part-time and auxillary officers and dispatcher/jailers.
The court eventually listed $20,000 in cuts from the sheriff's budget, although they were not specifically identified to citizens in attendance.
During the session, there was discussion as to whether the assessor's office really needed three full-time employees and one part-timer, and why the office spends so much on supplies.
A suggestion to cut funding to Tri-County Recycling was rejected, when Judge Willett explained recycling is a state mandated expense.
"We're not getting very far are we?" one justice said as time passed by, and proposed cuts were few and far between.
Peter Martin, who was audio taping the meeting, suggested that, since the needed budget cuts represent five percent of the total budget, the court should ask all department heads to cut their proposed budgets by five percent.
At one point, J-P Jimmy Mahler was struck by the county shortfalls, and the prospect of even higher deficits, if the county is forced to house all of its prisoners elsewhere, next year.
"We're going to have to get people to realize what's at stake with the sheriff and the jail," said Mahler. "Lot of people don't know what's going on, don't think it's going to pass. We need to do something to let people know what's going to happen (increased costs to house inmates if a new jail is not approved). I don't know how we are going to do it."
With their minds on budget cuts, no one responded to Mahler's comments.
While Rep. Lori Benedict recently sponsored a forum to discuss the new jail proposal, no further public events have been scheduled before the Nov. 8 election.
As the night wore on, J-Ps decided they could not identify all cuts needed, and will call a special meeting to continue the budget discussions.
|One decision approved by quorum court, before adjournment, addressed this year's budget short fall. The court approved a motion allocating the road department's share of the one percent sales tax to the general fund for the rest of the year. Currently, the general fund gets 40 percent of the one cent sales tax, while the road fund gets 60 percent.|
The same action was taken last year to help the general fund.
Judge Willett expressed concern about the decision, calling it a "band aid" for this year. Willett told the council it needed to identify lasting cuts that will bring spending in line with the reduced revenue that is currently being collected, instead of scrambling each year to cover budget short falls.