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Commissioners urged to blunt budget ax
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Departments faced with cutbacks in either personnel or services pleaded with Effingham County commissioners to take the edge off the budget axe.

Commissioners are looking at a draft fiscal year 2013 budget of approximately $26.78 million, a decrease of nearly $271,000 from the FY12 budget. County Administrator David Crawley said the county does not anticipate using any fund balance to shore up its budget, and the millage rate projects to be lower than the rollback rate.

"This would equate to a savings for some taxpayers," he said.

The county’s property tax digest has shrunk in value by 9 percent, and the county also has had decreases in its local option sales tax and special purpose local option sales tax proceeds.

"We are beginning to see slow construction increases, but nowhere close to what we had several years ago," Crawley said.

The county also plans to reduce contributions to employee retirement plans while having reductions in inmate housing and a 6 percent increase in health insurance premiums.

The draft budget also calls for the loss of what is the equivalent of nine full-time positions from a wide range of departments, including probate court, magistrate court, tax assessor, tax commissioner, public works, recreation, GIS and the sheriff’s office.

Library representatives said they could live with a cut to their funding. But a 9-percent decrease in funding would be too much to handle. Neal Vickers, finance director for the Live Oak Public Libraries, said the two Effingham branches could handle a smaller drop in funding.

"We could do a 4-percent cut without any change in service or hours and no layoff in staff," he said.

A 4-percent cut would take about $18,000 from the libraries’ funding, which is projected to be $422,650 in the draft budget.

"A 9-percent cut would really hurt us," said Beatrice Saba, director of Effingham’s branches.

The libraries may reduce their hours, from 62 hours a week to 52 hours a week. The two branches, in Rincon and Springfield, may be open only three days a week.

"In 2006, we had 116 hours of service," Saba said. "Now we’re down to 62."

Vickers said library employees have gone without raises from anywhere from three to five years.

"It’s getting tighter and tighter," he said. "We’re getting to the point where there’s not a lot left to cut."

Vickers said they grasp the predicament the county commissioners face in trying to resolve the budget.

"A 9 percent drop in the digest is pretty big," Vickers said. "We understand what you’re going through."

Betty Ford Renfro of the Historic Effingham Society urged commissioners to help the group keep the doors of the Old Jail Museum open.

"We have taken our lumps, too," she said. "But visitors arrive at all times. It’s imperative to keep this museum open and available to the public. We ask you to give us a hand to continue what we’ve accomplished mostly on a volunteer basis."

Chief appraiser Janis Bevill asked commissioners to restore the one part-time position the assessors’ department is scheduled to lose. The number of parcels in the county has gone from 27,562 to 27,785.

"That means more work for our office. We’re operating very efficiently with our staff," she said. "But cutting staff will put a burden on us. The technology can’t drive the vehicle out into the field and take pictures and measure the houses."

Said Board of Assessors chairman Al Trimm: "We haven’t had any increase in staff and we have had increases in our workload."

Bevill said she doesn’t believe her office has added any staff in the last 10 years, and they have one person who works in the GIS section. But that staffer is kept busy with work on information on parcels, though that person does help with GIS’ workload.

Darrell O’Neal of the health department said his office does get federal and state money and requested the commissioners enact a 5 percent cut to their funding.

"We’ve gone from a field staff of six to three," he said. "Now we’re struggling to meet the minimum state mandate."

Probate Court Judge Beth Rahn Mosley said the trend in her office is for more customers. The minimum for someone in their office needing assistance with an issue is 20 minutes and some of those inquiries can take two to three hours to handle. She said her office has seen more requests for gun permits.

Judge Mosley also said her office has generated four times the revenue from vital records since she took over the office, and it’s currently at $11,580 this year. The probate court has had 2,090 visitors so far this year, compared to 3,437 for last year.

The office has three clerks and one part-time clerk. Mosley’s figures showed Bulloch County had three full-time clerks and one part-time while Liberty County had five full-time clerks.

"I feel our workload is heavier," she said. "There’s a lot of things in my office we do that you don’t know about."

Chief Magistrate Scott Hinson also said his office has been busier and has less staffing to handle the work. The magistrate court’s budget has been reduced by 9 percent since 2009.

"It’s been extremely difficult making these cuts seeing as how 92 percent of the budget is in personnel," he said.

The magistrate court also lost the equivalent of a part-time position and had two employees retire, with more than 30 years of experience between them. Hinson asked to have a part-time position upgraded to a full-time spot and to have commissioners avoid further cuts to his staff.

"A large majority of the citizens who utilize the magistrate court are not represented by counsel," Hinson said. "Therefore, it’s extremely important that the clerks in this office offer as much guidance and advice as they can, without giving information that would be considered legal advice.

"Whether it’s relevant or not, people desire to be heard, and I do not want to take that right away from them," Hinson said. "Without a properly-filled staff, I’m afraid that’s exactly what will happen."