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County budget rises slightly, but millage wont
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Effingham County commissioners have approved the first reading of a budget that will keep millage rates level and boost county employees’ pay by 3 percent as a cost-of-living adjustment.

Commissioners approved the first reading of the budget, a $26.755 million spending plan, and also approved the millage rates. The budget’s first reading was approved in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Reggie Loper voting against it, and the millage rate was approved unanimously.

“I am very encouraged by hearing the department heads talk positively about the proposals that have been put together,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler. “I am encouraged that we can provide cost-of-living raises for staff.”

Revenues for the county, including property taxes and local option sales taxes, are projected to bring in more than $26.3 million. The county has $11.6 million in fund balance, but of that only $3 million is unassigned, and another $4 million has been designated for economic stabilization.

The county’s general fund budget for fiscal year 2014 is an increase of more than $351,000 from FY13, and fund balance will be used to offset the difference in projected revenues and expenditures.

“I still have concerns that our spending items are going to be met,” Kessler said.

Cost-of-living adjustments and merit pay increases have not been included for county employees since 2009, and commissioners debated the merits of 2 percent merit increases.

“It’s been four or five years since we gave cost-of-living increases,” Commissioner Steve Mason said. “But merit increases, I think that should be on a case-by-case basis. I think what’s better is to offer the department heads some latitude as to who deserves it.”

County human resources director Rushe Hudzinski-Sero said eligibility for merit increases requires the employee to have been with the county for at least year, an evaluation of their work and if their work is deemed to be above and beyond their duties.

“We’re losing people,” Commissioner Forrest Floyd said. “If someone has stuck with the county for four or five years without a raise, they deserve that 2 percent. They’ve stuck with us.”

“It’s time, in my opinion,” said Commissioner Vera Jones.

Effingham County Recreation and Parks director Clarence Morgan said he’s given merit raises about half the time he’s been a department head and advocated the cost-of-living adjustments for employees.

“We need a raise, or we’re going to start losing people,” he said. “Merit raises, you’ve got to earn that. Merit is earned and not given, just because you’re an employee.”

The tax digest is valued at $1.535 billion, down from its level of $1.767 billion in 2009 but up from $1.51 billion last year. Property taxes bring in about 53 percent of the county’s revenues. LOST revenues are expected to take a hit, down to $5.6 million in receipts. The county and the cities agreed to a new split of LOST proceeds that reduced the county’s take.

The millage rate for the unincorporated portions of the county will remain at 8.558. The Effingham Industrial Development Authority will receive 2 mills of a property tax, the school system set its millage rate at 16.897 and the hospital authority will receive 1.997 mills. Under the contract between the county and the hospital, the hospital authority is guaranteed $3.6 million a year.

Commissioner Phil Kieffer said there has been some consideration to rolling the hospital authority’s millage into the county’s millage.

The proposed budget, which will be face a second vote and possible final approval at the commissioners’ next meeting, also includes a $150,000 contingency fund.

The county also may have to tackle insurance costs soon.

“Insurance is a big, big issue,” Kessler said, “but none of us knows the answers. Unless any of us have a crystal ball, the best any of us can do is make an educated guess, which it appears we have done.”

County millage rate
by fiscal year
2005    10.127
2006    9.943
2007    9.756
2008    8.913
2009    8.854
2010    8.530
2011    8.558
2012    8.530
2013    8.558
2014    8.558