With a unanimous vote, the Effingham County commissioners approved a fiscal year 2013 budget Thursday night.
Commissioners adopted a budget that is more than $645,000 less than the fiscal year 2012 budget. The county will have a spending plan for $26.4 million for the fiscal year — which began July 1 — after having a budget of $27.05 for FY12. The budget has been reduced each year since a $30 million plan in FY10.
The unanimous decision on the budget’s second reading — which puts the budget into effect — came after commissioners tabled the first reading three times and failed to gain a majority on six separate votes before it was approved.
“This has been grueling,” said Commissioner Phil Kieffer. “There are still going to be challenges to operate within the budget as the year goes on.”
The approved budget keeps the $177,000 cuts made to the sheriff’s office request from the adoption of the first reading. It also reduces the use of fund balance, County Administrator David Crawley said.
Commissioners also kept the county’s millage rate at 8.558 and approved an overall millage rate of 29.632. Commissioners voted to keep the hospital’s millage rate at 1.977.
Kieffer was glad the commissioners could keep their portion of the millage rate from rising, even as the property tax digest fell by 9 percent.
“When the digest goes down by 9 percent, that’s a good indication of what the citizens are going through,” he said. “We should try to match that.”
Commissioners maintained the workforce of the magistrate and probate courts at their current levels. Personnel cuts were enacted to EMS, public works, recreation, the tax commissioner’s office and the tax assessor’s office. Chief appraiser Janis Bevill urged commissioners not to pare a part-time staffer from her ranks.
“That’s going to put a strain on our office,” she said. “We struggle as it is. The digest has fallen, but we still have to do the same job, whether it’s going up or down.”
Bevill said part-time help makes up a lot of her staff, and the assessors’ office has about 2,000 appeals to process. Bevill said more than 700 of those will not have any change.
But, she cautioned, there will be changes to the digest when those appeals go to the board of equalization.
“We’re still not through with these numbers,” Bevill said.
Bevill said a request for new vehicles for her office was removed, and losing a part-time spot will “absolutely” mean more overtime for her office. She has three full-time appraisers, and two of her office staff members will spend one day a week in the field.
The assessors’ office has to conduct revaluations every three years, and the county has more than 27,000 parcels to assess. Each appraiser makes at most 3,500 assessments a year, Bevill said.
“We have to be in the field to see every parcel every three years,” she said. “There’s 27,000 parcels and all of them don’t have a house on them. But people are constantly building things they don’t have a permit for. I’m not saying we can’t do it. There are other things we’re going to have to do to make it work.”
Of the more than 27,000 parcels in the county, at least 16,000 lost 10 percent or more of their value. Bevill estimated between 6,000-7,000 parcels had changes of value of less than 10 percent.
Bevill commended the commissioners on adopting a balanced budget and keeping the millage rate from rising.
“It’s good to balance the budget and it’s good to keep the millage rate down,” she said.
The county’s budget has decreased from a high of $30 million in FY10 to the current level of $26.4 million, a drop of almost 12 percent.
The FY13 budget also does not include a contingency, Crawley pointed out. Commissioners eliminated line items of $200,000 each for contingency and capital funds.
“We may come up with a budget amendment to use additional fund balance,” Crawley said.
The county is projecting to receive $6.2 million from local option sales tax proceeds. But that figure, Crawley warned, could change.
“We are still in negotiations with the cities on LOST proceeds,” he said. “That could have significant impacts to our general fund budget.”
County finance director Joanna Wright also said the county’s revenue projections don’t have any room for error. The county has projected a collection rate of 100 percent on its property taxes, which are expected to generate $13.25 million in revenue.
“The revenue figures we have budgeted are not conservative,” she said.
Wright also said the county does not know what may happen with LOST revenues, and they are expected to decline.
“From that standpoint, I need to make sure you need to understand we do not have excess within the revenues,” she told commissioners. “There are possible budget amendments. I don’t look for there to be excess this year.”
If the county’s finances get into a bind and can’t keep up with expenditures, Kieffer believes the commissioners can make further reductions in spending.
“I still think there is fat within the budget that can be cut,” he said. “If it gets down to that, in a worst-case scenario, it forces us to look even harder.”