Effingham County commissioners will have to wait for at least another meeting before adopting a budget.
Commissioners voted 4-1 at a special called meeting to table the first reading of the fiscal year 2013 budget as they again debated what to do with the sheriff’s spending. They were presented a third draft of the FY13 budget Monday evening, and the last edition of the proposed budget stands at $26.578 million, a cut of more than $472,000 from the FY12 budget.
The FY12 budget was adopted at $27.05 million and requests for the FY13 budget came in at more than $29.5 million.
“Our goal is always to present a balanced budget that meets or exceeds the budget assumptions,” said County Administrator David Crawley. “We continue to restructure to provide quality service and create efficiencies in service delivery, provide adequate resources for our departments to meet the needs of the community and the services they provide and for us to continue to provide a high quality level of service.”
Commissioners had questions about what the tax digest’s final numbers will be and whether they should adopt a budget and then figure what the millage should be or wait for the digest results and mold the budget around a proposed millage rate.
“You’ve got to decide what you’re willing to pay for, not try to hold the millage where it’s at,” said Commissioner Steve Mason. “If it adjusts a point plus or minus, it does. But what you’ve got to decide is what you’re willing to pay for.”
Commissioner Vera Jones reiterated her stance that she will not support raising the millage and also said she won’t vote to raise the millage for the hospital authority when that request comes before the board.
“What I’ve decided is to keep my word to the taxpayers,” she said. “I am not going to vote on numbers we don’t have. We do not have a digest. I say we see the digest and determine what we’re going to do about that.”
But commissioners also debated what they could do with Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie’s budget. The take-home cars, particularly those for sheriff’s deputies and personnel who live outside the county, remain a point of contention. Sheriff McDuffie has told the commissioners the two areas he will remain steadfast are an in-house dispatch section and the take-home cars for deputies.
The sheriff’s FY13 budget request was for $6.3 million, with $1 million in capital expenditures.
“If we’re going to ask people to cut to the bone, then how are we going to approve this, knowing there are cost-saving measures over there and not do anything about it?” Mason asked. “We’re asking everybody to cut as tight as we can and run everything as efficient as we can, except for one area.”
County figures show the sheriff’s office is over budget for FY12 by more than $600,000, with June’s payroll and purchase card receipts yet to be accounted. County officials said the sheriff has been over his annual budget for three years.
“I feel if he goes $600,000 over budget, he should justify it,” said Commissioner Bob Brantley, “which he has not done.”
Of the sheriff’s office’s vehicles, 33 are take-home units for deputies and personnel who live outside the county. Commissioners questioned the cost of having those cars driving out of the county on a daily basis.
“Jimmy’s a personal friend,” Mason said. “But I think there are things over there we can ask them to do, and they should be willing to do. By their own numbers, we had $800,000 in cars traveling outside the county that could be used within the budget.
“The sheriff is charged with public safety, and we have to fund public safety. But we’re charged with writing the checks for this and controlling how much is spent by the taxpayers in each department.”
The county commissioners, however, control the vehicles, Crawley and County Attorney Eric Gotwalt advised. Crawley said one avenue the commissioners could pursue is “hot-seating” the vehicles, where the cars operate 24 hours a day and the deputies rotate through the car on their shifts.
“They don’t last as long,” he said, “but you don’t have to have a car for every deputy. You don’t have to have a computer in every car. You decide what property is allocated to the sheriff.”
The commissioners also could set the sheriff’s budget and it is up to the sheriff how to spend that allocation, Gotwalt noted.
“It’s not this board’s job to tell him or any other constitutional officer how many (people) they can hire or what they should pay them,” he said. “But it is up to this board to say this is enough money for you for to fulfill your lawful function.”
Commissioner Phil Kieffer also wondered what would happen if that department ran out of money before the fiscal year expired.
“Then that official has hard choices to make,” Gotwalt said. “’You’ve reached this much of your personnel budget; do you have a plan to deal with the projected shortfall?’”
Said Commissioner Reggie Loper: “We’ve been doing that the past year and it hasn’t been doing any good.”
Mason said he could not justify the perk of deputies living outside the county. A deputy who lives in Liberty County had his take-home vehicle grandfathered in when the take-home car policy was revised.
“I can’t seem to get anybody to give me a true cost of what this perk is costing,” Mason said. “At 33 employees, it came up to $800,000. These are true things we’re talking about here, cost saving measures that really add up to something, much more than taking a light bulb out of the fixture. I want the sheriff to realize this is something he can to do to save the county a lot of money and do it.”
Mason also offered some misgivings about the prospect of cutting the sheriff’s budget.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like having to do this,” he said. “But this is what I’ve been hired to do.”
Jones said the commissioners need to take a look at the sheriff’s expenses and requests earlier in the budget process.
“I think we’re in the 12th or 13th hour to have a war with the sheriff,” she said. “We need to start working with him early in the budget year instead of having this fight at the last minute. One of our jobs is to approve a budget for him. It is not our job to tell how to do his job.”
In preparing a third draft, county officials examined the anticipated revenue from the local option sales tax, reducing the expected intake by $175,000, cut insurance and retirement contributions and also plugged in unassigned fund balance and “rainy day” funds. The unassigned fund balance and “rainy day” funds total more than $372,000. The overall property tax receipts needed for the latest draft budget also decreased by $540,000.
The proposed budget also calls for eliminating the capital and contingency funds, at $200,000 each, and maintaining the current staffing levels for the probate and magistrate courts. Staff reductions in public works, recreation, EMS, tax commissioner and tax assessors remained intact.
“I don’t like taking all the contingency fund out,” Mason said. “I think that is going to come back to bite us.”
Commissioners are expected to discuss the budget and bring it back for a first reading July 17.