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County holds off on adopting FY13 budget
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Though a first reading of a proposed budget still has not been approved, Effingham County commissioners appear to be closer to finalizing a plan for fiscal year 2013.

The next fiscal year begins July 1, and in a 4-0 vote commissioners approved a continuing resolution under the current budget.

The new proposed budget is $26,578,001.54 for an overall reduction from the current budget of $472,525. It also uses more than $288,000 in unassigned fund balance and $83,800 from the rainy day fund.

But county officials also said there is no room for error should county revenues fall short of the mark.

"Currently, our revenues match our expenditures," said county finance director Joanna Wright. "If there is a shortfall, we may not have the cushion we have had in the past."

Commissioners also likely now will not enact proposed cuts to magistrate and probate court staffs, and cuts in funding for the library and health department will be about half of the planned 9 percent decrease. The library will receive a 4 percent cut, and the health department is getting a 5 percent cut.

Personnel reductions also are still on tap for the tax assessors, tax commissioner, recreation, public works and EMS. EMS stands to lose four full-time positions.

"Some offices have a lot more room to be cut," said Commissioner Steve Mason. "Some may not justify additional personnel. But some can be cut and some that were running leaner may need to be left alone."

Probate Court Judge Beth Rahn Mosley and Chief Magistrate Scott Hinson each pleaded with commissioners not to follow through with staff reductions for their departments. Mosley asked for an additional part-time person in her office.

"I’d like to have an extra person," she said. "But rather than cut a person, I’m asking you to reconsider and leave my department with no cuts at this time."

Mosley said previous budget proposals didn’t include the option of maintaining her staff at the current level.

"What we don’t have is on the schedule is why can’t we just leave it as it is, since we’re functioning OK," she said. "I’ve shown I’ve had an increase in money, I’ve had an increase in traffic, an increase in calls. I’ve proven that, I feel like."

Hinson also implored commissioners not to cut his staff.

"Since 2009 until this year, this office has reduced its budget by 9 percent," he said. "It’s extremely difficult making these cuts, considering 92 percent of the magistrate court’s budget is personnel. Last year alone I lost the equivalent of a part-time position, a position I was left with the understanding would be reconsidered since it was vital to the magistrate court."

Cutting his staff would leave one clerk in the office while court is in session three days a week, Hinson told commissioners.

"It is impossible to guarantee that no one will ever take a sick day or take vacation or attend training," he said. "I feel I have done the best job I could do in this position. We have made tremendous strides in technology and professionalism. The strides have come at no additional cost. In fact, they’ve come at less cost."

The magistrate court is scheduled to lose one part-time magistrate Jan. 1, 2013, but Hinson asked commissioners to spare his office any more losses.

"If one continues to walk backward, eventually, they will fall off the cliff," he said. "We are not at liberty to remove, restructure or place on hold anything until budget permits."

"Magistrate court deals with volatile emotions from its litigants. An understaffed court would only precipitate additional stress," Hinson added. "It is extremely important clerks have to be able to provide as much as assistance and guidance as they can without dispensing legal advice. Whether it is relevant or not, people have a desire to be heard, and you do not want to take that right away from them. With a properly-filled staff, I am afraid that is exactly what will happen."

Hinson said that last year at this time, he didn’t expect to have stand before commissioners again and make his case for his staffing level.

" If you will leave me alone and let me keep what I’ve got and not make me get rid of somebody, I will make do it with it," he said. "I cannot cut anybody else and continue to run this court."

With the county’s tax digest expected to fall by 9 percent, commissioners are preparing to take in less money in property taxes for the coming fiscal year. As a result, the county has looked at 9 percent reductions in funding for departments.

"We’re waving a 9 percent magic wand," said Commissioner Steve Mason. "We need to have good, clear direction on what we need to do, because we don’t need to keep beating this thing. Some departments run a tighter ship than others, which is why that 9 percent magic wand doesn’t work."

Commissioner Reggie Loper tried to assuage Mosley and Hinson, declaring the commissioners weren’t singling out anyone.

"We’re not trying to hurt any one department," he said. "We’re trying to make it work with the money we receive. That’s all we’re trying to do is trying to make our budget work. We’re not after you, we’re not after anybody."

Said Commissioner Vera Jones: "A lot of departments made concessions."

The new proposed budget is $26,578,001.54 for an overall reduction from the current budget of $472,525. It also uses more than $288,000 in unassigned fund balance and $83,800 from the rainy day fund.

The county’s projected local option sales taxes also are being decreased by $175,000, and the third budget draft reduces the property tax revenue intake by more than $540,000. LOST proceeds have declined each of the last three months, according to county finance director Joanna Wright.

Property taxes make up approximately 51 percent of the county’s general fund revenue.

Under the third draft, the county also will eliminate the $200,000 each that would have been placed in the contingency and capital expenditures funds. Taking the contingency fund out means the county may have to find another way to support any runoff elections. Only one race on the July 31 ballot has more than two candidates, but there is the potential for a runoff vote.

"We are hoping and praying there will not be a runoff election," Crawley said.

The county’s total fund balance is just over $11 million. Of that total, there is just under $550,000 in accounts that cannot be spent or are prepayments. The restricted account is $1.6 million and the service delivery accounts for the three municipalities equate to about $3.7 million.

The county’s reserve for capital and cash flow, according to Wright, is about $4.2 million. It is the county’s rainy day fund, and it carries the county’s finances through the fall, when property tax receipts are at their lowest.

"We don’t want to be overly conservative to where we end up budgeting a surplus," Jones said. "In years past, we’ve budgeted a large surplus."

The county’s total accounts is about $30 million, Wright said, but that includes the general fund and their special fund balances, for such things as special purpose local option sales tax and enterprise funds.