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County passes budget
Commissioners OK $26.8M spending plan
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Effingham County commissioners adopted a budget for the fiscal year already under way that includes cost-of-living increases for employees, a bigger use of fund balance and less than whole-hearted support from the board.

Commissioners voted 3-1 in favor of the second draft of the budget, a $26.83 million spending plan that is an increase over the initial draft of $26.76 million.

The budget includes pay raises and merit pay increases for eligible employees, the first for county workers since 2009. The first draft called for $400,000 in fund balance to bring revenues in line with expenditures, and the final approval meant the county will dip into its fund balance for $461,000.

“There is no way I could go to a bank and borrow money with a business plan like this,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler, who does not have a vote in approving or denying the budget. “We’re taking another $60,000 in fund balance. There are so many contingencies out there. There are so many questions about this thing.”

County finance director Joanna Wright said the budget is tight and that the county can handle its needs because of its $4.2 million in “rainy day funds” and another $3 million in fund balance for contingencies.

“That helps to solidify our operations,” she said.

The county had only $700,000 in its rainy day fund six years ago, Wright said. The suggested level is to have three months’ worth of operations covered by the reserve.

“I think we’ve made some wise decisions,” she said. “We have been very fortunate because of the decisions made in past years that we are not in the same boat as other entities.”

Commissioner Vera Jones questioned the practice of squirreling away so much money.

“From 2002 on, every one of those years was planned where we had additional funds coming in,” she said. “That’s not a proper thing to do with taxpayers’ money, either, to overcollect.”

Commissioners had agreed earlier this month to keep the millage rate at 8.558. The digest rose slightly. Property taxes are expected to bring in nearly $14.3 million in revenue, and functional revenues are projected to account for $6 million.

“We are trying to move this to where it’s not so reliant on one or two areas,” said Wright, “but that it is more fee-based, so that people using those particular items are paying for those items.”

The county expects its local option sales tax receipts to decrease by about $656,000, a reduction brought on by a new LOST agreement with the cities.

“We believe that in shifting around some personnel, we have increased departmental efficiencies,” Floyd said. “We believe we are still maintaining a high level of service to the residents, especially in public safety.”

Commissioner Steve Mason asked why the library’s budget has not been increased. The library took a 10 percent cut in 2010, and the school board also reduced its backing of the library system that same year. The county’s portion of the library’s funding was $284,450.40 for fiscal year 2011, but it grew to more than $400,000 when commissioners agreed to absorb the school board’s portion in a swap for school resource officers’ funding.

The draft recommendation was for the library to receive $445,872, the same as its fiscal year 2013 funding.

“It appears there was no dialogue,” he said. “We’ve literally cut them to the bone. They have severely reduced their hours. They worked very hard with us. They cut as much as they could cut. Now our digest has increased, and we haven’t given anything for the library.”

Mason added he would like for the cities to be involved in library funding, and Commissioner Phil Kieffer asked if special purpose local option sales tax proceeds could help in some way.

“We cut other agencies, too,” temporary county administrator Toss Allen said. “The budget is a couple of million dollars different from what you have.”

Changes from the first draft include batteries for the county’s communications and adjustments to the personnel cost through COLAs and merit pay. The budget also added $10,000 in revenue through the probate court and approximately $3,900 in hotel-motel tax receipts, though commissioners also entered into a professional services agreement with the Effingham Chamber of Commerce for $4,500.

The budget also has a contingency fund of $150,000. Wright said additional savings could be found as discussions of consolidating services continue.

But the county may be faced with other expenses not in the current budget. Taxes on health insurance coverage could mean another $100,000 and portions of the county will become part of the CORE Metropolitan Planning Organization, the transportation planning arm of the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. The cost to be a part of that could be $50,000. How much of the county will be included in the MPO, and how the seats on the MPO’s board will be divvied up, have not been determined.

Kessler said he supported the employees getting raises but also wanted to see the county’s reserves used only when necessary.

“I recognize these are tough decisions,” he said. “There are so many unknowns. I would rather be eliminating debt this county has.”

Wright noted the county has addressed some of its outstanding water and sewer debt.