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County closes in on finishing FY13 budget
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Effingham County commissioners will go over the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget again Tuesday night — but any new budget won’t be approved before the current fiscal year expires.

The FY12 budget runs through June 30, so commissioners may have to enact budget resolutions in order to continue operations until the FY13 budget is adopted. With Commissioner Bob Brantley absent, and more work directed on the budget, commissioners opted to table the first reading.

“I think we’re all closer than we anticipated in our ideas,” Chairman Dusty Zeigler said. “We just have to figure out how to gel this together. The target and duty of the board of commissioners is to maintain a lean government and create efficiencies. I think we’re all speaking the same language.”

Commissioners likely will look at another version of the budget that calls for $26.3 million in revenue and spending. The budget edition commissioners pored over last week includes cuts to county employees’ retirement contributions, the elimination of the capital and contingency funds and restores some cuts to the library and health department.

Some budget items faced 9 percent cuts, but library and health department officials lobbied county commissioners to stave off such sharp cuts. Under the most recent budget adjustments, the health department will take a 5 percent cut in funding and the library will face a 4 percent loss in county support.

Eliminating the contingency and capital expenditures will decrease the budget by another $400,000, and the county is looking at reducing its property tax intake by more than $362,000.

Cutting out the contingency fund also led commissioners to inquire how the county would handle an unexpected expense.
“What do we do if there is a capital outlay we haven’t planned for?” Commissioner Steve Mason said.

That may have to come out of the general fund reserve through a budget amendment, County Administrator David Crawley said. And the county could face more expenses if there are any runoffs to the July 31 primaries.

“In some cases, we could work within the budget to make things work out,” Crawley said. “But if it’s any large item, we’d have to go back to our general fund.”

Among the goals for county staff as they prepared the budget were balancing the budget without using fund balance, lessenign the increases in health insurance premiums, maintaining the level of service for residents and proposing a millage rate lower than the rollback rate.

Crawley outlined to commissioners the share of pitfalls in navigating the budget. The property tax digest, which is the primary source for the county government’s revenue, declined by 9 percent.

“The board has heard from various agencies and departments,” he said. “Board members have provided some comments and suggestions. We examined our revenue figures and projections and tried to apply those back to our proposed budget.”

The economy has taken a toll on the local option and special purpose local option sales taxes, and construction increases also have slowed. The county’s population has continued to grow, and the county government has to balance residents’ needs with less volume in its revenue stream.

“We took a conservative approach with our revenue projections,” Crawley said.

Under the original draft, property tax receipts account for 51 percent of the county’s revenues, approximately $13.76 million. LOST revenues are the second-biggest source of funding, projected to come in at $6.37 million, nearly 24 percent of revenues.

In adjusting the first draft of the budget, county officials recalculated the LOST revenue and also took a closer look at how much the probate and magistrate courts anticipate in collecting in fees and services.

The latest budget projections put revenue from the probate and magistrate courts at a total of more than $73,000 higher.

But sales tax collections have dropped dramatically over the last two months, according to county figures. In 2007, LOST accounted for nearly $8 million in revenue to the county. LOST projections for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, were reduced by another $175,000.

“We cannot afford to lose any LOST under this current budget,” Crawley said.

The county also believes it can cut health insurance cost projections from 6 percent to 3 percent.

The most recent budget proposal also calls for the use of $288,296 in unassigned fund balance. Commissioners indicated they were willing to use a portion of the county’s rainy day fund for the coming budget.

“I think everybody is interested in using at least some of the rainy day fund,” Mason said.

But Zeigler warned that using rainy-day funds for the proposed budget means cutting into future reserves.

“We could use a little more rainy day fund,” he said “We’ve been conservative in our budgeting. We have a rainy day fund — why can’t use some of that money.

“But the caveat is, if we do that, we have to have a long-term plan. Otherwise, when the rainy day fund runs out, we may have to increase taxes to compensate for it,” Zeigler said.

County expenditures have been less than revenue for each fiscal year from 2004-12, according to county figures.

Commissioner Vera Jones pointed out the county has built up nearly $39 million in cash on hand, though a sizable portion is reserved, and has a surplus of $18 million.

“But some of that is usable,” she said.

Jones said her goal during budget workup was to keep the millage rate at 8.553.

“I want to see if we could do something a little better,” she said. “I wanted to find some money we could give back to the taxpayers.”

Jones also said it appears that property assessments have hit rock-bottom.

The first draft budget presented to commissioners called for $26.78 million in spending and revenue, a reduction of more than $271,000 from the current fiscal year operating plan. It also proposed a millage rate of 8.95, lower than the rollback rate of 9.427.

Millage rates remained at 8.558 for fiscal years 2011-12, rising slightly from FY10’s 8.53. Millage rates had declined every year since FY05’s level of 10.127.

There also was no use of fund balance to level the budget, and the county also proposed reducing its staffing by the equivalent of nine full-time positions.

Probate Judge Beth Rahn Mosley and Chief Magistrate Scott Hinson urged commissioners not to reduce their staff. Their courts continue to be busy, and staff reductions could affect the service they provide, they argued.

“Our business is up,” Hinson said. “We have generated more revenue, and our budget has gone down. I’m not the problem. I don’t feel I should be punished.”

But commissioners intend to institute the loss of four positions in the EMS department.

While department heads pleaded with commissioners not to cut staff, Zeigler asked to have information on how much workload current employees are asked to handle.

“Commissioners are not given any metrics,” he said. “Are you carrying any overtime? Are there works in progress? Those things are indicators as to whether or not you need more staff. If we don’t get that information, if we don’t get those indicators, it’s tough for us to measure.”

Mason said he’d be willing to hear from the residents just what level of service they expect from their county government.

“We need to focus not so much on the millage increase or decrease but on the cost of government,” he said. “To me, I don’t want to see any increase in any budget in any department.”

The FY10 budget was $30 million and has fallen every year since. The first draft budget for FY13 represents a 10.7 percent decrease from the FY10 plan.

As part of its original draft, the county proposed keeping the fund balance at 15 percent, “in case we had any emergency we had to cover,” Crawley said.