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County budget meets approval
Plan cuts $177K from sheriffs portion
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After three previous attempts — and a half-dozen votes Tuesday that failed to produce a majority — Effingham County commissioners finally hammered out a successful first reading of the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Three votes Tuesday ended in a 3-3 tie, another fell 2-4 and yet another motion on the budget failed to earn a second, meaning it never reached a vote by the full commission. Eventually, all six commissioners approved a first reading of the budget that calls for a spending plan of $26.4 million, with another $177,000 pared from the sheriff’s office allotment.

Commissioners also reduced the overall general fund budget for the fourth consecutive year, much to the delight of the at-large chairman.

“I know it was tough to do,” said Chairman Dusty Zeigler. “And the end result is fantastic. It’s something to be proud of. We have a number everyone is favorable to, and that’s a milestone.”

Commissioner Vera Jones said she has spoken with Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie, who told her he could find another $127,000 in savings in his department. Commissioners added another $50,000 in cuts to come from the sheriff’s expenditures.

“I asked if he would be willing to find another $127,000 in cuts in his budget, and he said he would agree to that,” she said. “It’s not our job to tell him where to cut it. It’s our job to help produce a budget that is appropriate to the taxpayers.”

The sheriff’s office budget is being reduced from its original estimate of $5.3 million, but county officials point out it’s still more than the approved budget for fiscal year 2012. Sheriff McDuffie said he was well aware budgets were tight and he was willing to compromise.

“We’ll make cuts where we can, without affecting public safety,” he said. “Even though $177,000 is cut, we won’t let it affect public safety, and we’ll keep doing the job we’re doing.”

The sheriff  added he appreciated the support of Jones and Commissioner Phil Kieffer and looked forward to working with all the commissioners.

Commissioners also continued to probe the sheriff’s office expenditures and practices, particularly the take-home car policy and the sheriff’s dispatch section.

County figures show the sheriff’s office’s spending has surpassed its budget each of the last three years, and it’s $700,000 over budget for fiscal year 2012. County figures show the sheriff spent more than $5.69 million for FY12, in excess of his $4.98 million budget. The sheriff’s budget had been reduced from $5.6 million in FY10 to $5.4 million in FY11. His expenditures have gone done from $5.84 million in FY10 and $5.9 million in FY11.

“It is not our position to tell him how to save money and how to spend his money,” said County Administrator David Crawley.

Commissioners also seemed anxious to move closer to finalizing a budget for a fiscal year that began July 1.

“We ought to move forward, someway, somehow,” said Commissioner Reggie Loper. “We’ve put it off long enough.”

“We can’t wait to align the sun and moon and stars on this,” Zeigler said. “We have a pretty good idea of where (Sheriff McDuffie) stands.”

With the budget now closer to approval, the millage rate also is expected to remain the same for the unincorporated portions of the county. Commissioners also learned the digest is shrinking even further than originally anticipated.

Commissioners will hold millage rate hearings July 26 and are expected to have a second reading of the budget that day. Approval of the second reading will put the FY13 spending and revenues plan into play.

Commissioners kept the unincorporated millage rate at 8.558. They also debated how to approach the budget — applying a millage rate to a digest figure first or determining how much money should be spent before calculating the millage. The county figures to collect about $13.2 million in property taxes, down from $14.26 million last year and $14.9 two years ago.