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Commissioners approve slightly bigger budget
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County budget history
Fiscal year      Total (in millions)
FY12                          $27.05
FY13                          $26.4
FY14                          $26.83
FY15                          $26.81
FY16                          $27.5

Effingham County commissioners approved the fiscal year 2016 budget Tuesday night, giving its second reading a 5-0 vote.

The budget, pegged at $27.5 million, is a 2.6 percent increase over the FY15 budget, but the county is not anticipating a property tax increase.

“We look at the budget and the operational considerations,” county finance director Joanna Wright said. “One of the things we try to do is make sure we create a fiscally responsible and balanced budget, within the anticipated rollback rate.”

Commissioners approved the first reading by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Reggie Loper casting the lone vote in opposition. The budget calls for $696,000 more in spending over the current budget and it includes stair-step pay raises for county employees.

The budget calls for more than $308,000 in longevity step pay raises, or an overall hike of about 2.8 percent. There also is more than $236,000 for four additional emergency medical technicians and another ambulance.

“Staff very much so believes that is a need,” Wright said. “We need that staff during the day to ensure that we have adequate coverage.”

In 1980, the county EMS had one ambulance. Now there are five, but the number of EMS calls escalate during the day, according to Wright.

The overall number of calls to EMS has swelled from 2,900 in 2005 to 5,400 in 2014. The EMS also will get new heart monitors, at the cost of approximately $160,000, but those will be paid for over five years.

The county expects to trim its number of personnel, even with the additional EMTs, according to Wright. The county has approximately 315 full-time employees, including elected officials.

“We’ve done that through not filling open positions,” she said.

The county also is continuing to look at staffing for the county jail, and there is planned increase for health care coverage, Wright added.

Budget requests came in at approximately $1.6 million over the current budget, Wright noted, before they were pared down. She also pointed to new software and technology that has helped improve efficiency.

The budget includes $513,000 in capital expenses, with about $300,000 for new sheriff’s vehicles. Overall, the county is spending $649,000 for sheriff’s cars over a five-year period. Also in the budget is $60,000 for cars for the county pool, but Wright said the cost could be as low as $45,000 with expected savings in fuel expenses.

The FY15 budget also has $100,000 set aside for road and drainage improvements.

“We are trying to rebuild an aging fleet and our infrastructure,” Wright said. “And we’re trying to balance that with a growing population. We have tried to increase the overall service level and leverage where we could existing revenues to try to replace some of the capital assets we have deferred in the last few years.”

According to Wright, the county’s per capita cost of government was $526 in 2010 but it is now down to $496.

Property taxes are expected to bring in about $14.9 million in revenue. The digest has increased from $1.53 billion in 2013 to $1.57 billion in 2015. Functional revenues are pegged at $6.2 million and proceeds from the local option sales tax, which was $5.6 million two years ago, is expected to be $5.9 million for the coming budget year.

“The budget challenges have been the same,” Wright said. “Our property tax levels have not increased. New growth has not taken place like we had hoped. The price of consumer goods has increased.”

Wright added the tax digest has not rebounded as fast as hoped but it could be add more value in the coming years.

“The only way you get any difference in your tax dollar is from new growth, and we did not see this year,” she said. “From what we saw out of planning and zoning, they expect it to grow considerably. It may be another year; it may be another two years.”

Property taxes comprise nearly 54 percent of the county’s general fund revenue.

“It has held steady,” Wright said. “We saw a decrease for several years.”

Of expenditures, 68 percent are allocated to personnel. Purchases make up 14 percent of expenses, and supplies account for 11 percent of spending. By department, public safety takes up most of the expenditures, about 45 percent, or $12 million. Health and welfare accounts for 20 percent of the county’s spending, followed by general government at 14 percent ($3.9 million) and judicial and courts at 11 percent, or $3 million.

The county’s special funds, or enterprise funds, come from user fees, payments in lieu of taxes, insurance premium refunds and the special purpose local option sales tax, among others. Water and sewer operations, along with fire protection, are among the enterprise funds.

“We try to make our enterprise funds as self-sufficient as possible,” Wright said.

The county is proposing to add nine new firefighters and will set fire fees. The county has added three firefighters, after the merger with the Springfield Fire Department.

To bolster the county’s fire coverage, the county has taken over the Griffin Lakes fire station, which will be replaced by a station in Tusculum. That station is still about 60 days away from opening, according to County Administrator Toss Allen. Expenditures for fire will be about $3 million.

“We’ve done some things on the south end with Rincon to fill in some holes,” he said.

The county is projecting getting $1.4 million in PILTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, and another $1.8 million in insurance proceeds.

Water and sewer will carry a total budget cost of around $2.3 million. Revenues bring in approximately $1.3 million, and cost recovery adds another $300,000 to the bottom line. The budget calls for the special tax district to supplement those activities for $700,000. There are about 1,300 county water customers and 1,100 county sewer customers.

“We do not have the customer base to support that,” Wright said.

Wright also recommended a workshop on water and sewer in the next few months and said there is the possibility of having trash pickup provider Republic taking over more of the landfill functions.

The projected millage rate, Wright said, will be between the current mark of 8.422 and the rollback rate of 8.336. Commissioners will set the millage rate June 24.