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Some cuts reduced as Fulton County Quorum Court approves 2012 budget

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A large group of senior citizens attended the Dec. 19 meeting of the Fulton County Quorum Court, as supporters expressed concern over a proposed $15,000 reduction in assistance to senior centers. When the 2012 budget was approved, the cut was reduced to $5,000, lessening chances a center will have to be closed or services to seniors reduced. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
After struggling in October and November to cut $100,000 from its 2012 budget, two bits of good news helped Fulton County Quorum Court finally pass a budget at it's Dec. 19 meeting.

A large crowd of senior citizens were in the audience as the meeting began and, before budget deliberations got underway, three people spoke against a $15,000 cut in funding to senior centers approved by Quorum Court on Nov. 1.

"The fact that you can just throw the senior citizens under the bus by cutting their budget, this is probably going to shut down at least one senior center. I would like for you to reconsider," Fulton County resident Mary Rivera told Justices of the Peace. "These are people that could be your parents, your aunts and uncles. It could be you one of these days."

State Representative Lori Benedict received loud applause when she said, if the county was going to build a $2.1 million jail for criminals, "My gosh, we owe it to our senior citizens to find them the money (to operate centers)."

When Quorum Court members looked at their proposed 2012 budget and expected revenue in October, it was determined they needed to cut $100,000 from the budget to ensure the county would not be spending more than it was taking in.

Over the course of two meetings, Justices of the Peace struggled to find cuts, and after cutting the Sheriff's proposed budget and reducing grants in aid -- county money that goes to non-governmental organizations -- by 50-percent, the budget had been reduced by about $57,000.

County Judge Charles Willett suggested, in early November, that the court delay further budget considerations until late December. By then, it should know how much it would receive as a "final settlement" from state government -- revenue the state owes Fulton County for tax collection and other services -- and obtain quotes to try to lower employee health insurance rates.

Willett began the Dec. 19 budget discussion by telling the court that employee insurance will not cost an extra $22,000 next year as feared.

"They (Blue Cross Blue Shield) were going to do an 18 1/2 percent increase but, as soon as they found out we were getting quotes from other companies, they dropped theirs back to this year's price, which is $335 (a month) a person," Willett said.

Willett told J-Ps they could either keep Blue Cross Blue Shield as the county's provider or switch to United Healthcare, which would insure workers for $332 a month and would include a wellness program.

"Have employees been happy with Blue Cross Blue Shield?" Justice of the Peace Marjorie Rogers asked Willett.

Willett responded that he was not aware of complaints, and County Assessor Brad Schaufler, Tax Collector Calvin "Buster" Smith and Clerk Vickie Bishop all praised Blue Cross coverage. Schaufler, who underwent cancer treatment, said he had a good experience with Blue Cross' network of physicians and payment of claims.

The council decided to leave coverage with Blue Cross Blue Shield, since it had dropped it's proposed rate increase.

Willett then revealed that the final settlement from the state would be around $360,000, about $60,000 more than projected in the proposed budget.

The $22,000 in insurance savings and additional $60,000 in final settlement funds meant that Quorum Court could pass a budget without making further cuts, and even scale back some cuts it had previously made.

"I would like to see some senior citizens money put back in there (in the budget), J-P Michael Barnett said.

Jim Bickers agreed saying, "This is not something we wanted to do (cut the Senior Citizen budget). I hope nobody thinks we were out to get anybody. When we started, we were $100,000 short."

During a discussion, it was mentioned that Rep. Benedict recently gave $5,000 in state General Improvement Funds to the senior center. By restoring $10,000 of the county's cut in funding, the senior centers would receive all of the $30,000 originally requested.

Connie Godwin, director of the Fulton County Aging Program, said, "That would help." She added, however, that the senior centers will still be in a deficit from cuts the past two years.

J-Ps decided giving senior centers $25,000 of the $30,000 requested was the most they could allocate in the 2012 budget.

Willett indicated that the County Extension Office must receive $26,000 in county assistance, the minimum amount required by the state in order for an extension office to be located in a county. J-Ps had reduced the office's budget request to $15,605.

MaLinda Gray, of the extension office, said the increased appropriation would still leave her office $5,000 short, but she hoped that the state would make up the deficit, so program or staff cuts would not be necessary.

Other budget cuts were not scaled back. The Sheriff's Department will have to make

due with $28,000 less revenue, and the Tax Collector's office agreed to a $9,757 budget cut. The Assessor's budget was cut by $2,000, the Coroner's office was cut by $2,270 and Soil Conservation will receive $2,600 less in county funding next year.

Quorum Court unanimously approved a 2012 budget of $1,890,130. Since the county expects to take in $2,116,080 in revenue next year, it should be able to live within its means. However, reduced tax collections and unexpected expenditures have caused the county to make budget cuts and adjustments during the past two fiscal years to stay in the black.

The county expects to receive $1,631,476 in revenue for the road fund next year.

The county, which must pass a new budget by the end of the year, beat its deadline by 12 days.

In other business, Willett told the court that the only problems found in a legislative audit were two write-ups involving the District Court Clerks office. According to Willett, District Court Judge Jim Short is addressing the problems, including obtaining some new software that should help the office meet required standards.

Rep. Benedict added, "A lot of counties are called in (before the audit committee) because they have discrepancies, lots of problems. I am proud to say no major problems were found in the Fulton County audit. We passed with flying colors."

As the meeting ended, Tax Collector Smith said he would make a $100 contribution to the senior centers, and invited others to also make donations, considering the centers' money problems.

"Everybody is really thankful for what you did to help the seniors," Godwin said, as seniors who attended the meeting filed out.

Judge Willett said overcoming the health insurance rate increase and getting more money than expected from the state helped ease the budget crunch.

"I'm glad we were able to reduce some of the cuts and get the budget passed," said Willett. "Now, let's just hope revenue comes in at the levels we've projected."

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