Commissioners prep for budget review

Published 8:46 pm Friday, September 17, 2010

Robin Sullivan plans to spend the weekend with the draft of the fiscal year 2011 Pike County budget.

It might not be what some folks consider a good read, but for the District 2 Commissioner, it’s compelling.

“I’ve been back through it again after Monday’s meeting, and I’ll go back through it a couple of times this weekend,” Sullivan said. “There are a few things I think were excessive that we need to look at.”

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Sullivan, and the remaining commissioners, are preparing for a budget hearing that begins at 5:15 p.m. Monday at the commission meeting room in the County Health Department Office.

During that meeting, commissioners are going to review the proposed budget, once again, in an attempt to finalize a passable version before Sept. 30. Commissioners decided last week to hold additional budget hearings – including a tentative second hearing at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday as well – because several said they wanted more time to review the budget proposals.

“What I anticipate doing, in these one or two meetings or however many are necessary, is going line-by-line in the budget, giving as much details as the commissioners want us to,” said Harry Sanders, county administrator.

“You know the revenue side is essentially given to us by our experts, and it’s based on estimates. For any budget, though, the most important item is going to be the expenditures, and our obligation is to make sure it (the budget) balances …

“I think the commission is doing its best to make sure the revenues are – I don’t know if put in reserve is the right word to use there – but at least unallocated.”

The commission operates on a general fund budget of roughly $10 million, Sanders said.

Projections for the fiscal year 2011 budget show a $123,741 surplus at year-end if the commission does not grant 3 percent anniversary raises to employees, something which has traditionally been granted, although is not guaranteed.

Sanders’ projections show that granting the raises will leave a surplus of $80,676 at year-end.

Those raises are likely to be a point of contention among commissioners, who could be divided about granting raises in tight economic circumstances.

Sullivan was commission chairman when the 1-cent sales tax was passed that generates revenue for education (75 percent) and the county commission (25 percent).

He said when that tax was passed, commission members supported the tax with the understanding they would have a steady revenue source to fund ongoing pay increases for county employees. Because of that, he feels a commitment to the 3 percent anniversary pay raises.

“I’m going to be for that,” he said.

Others, like commission chairman Jimmy Barron, are not as certain. “I’m afraid if this economy keeps on like it is, with our sales taxes like they are, everything could take another plunge and we could be in the red,” Barron said.

“I’m not 100 percent certain what I’m going to do about the raises. I’m going to keep an open mind about it, but I’m going to have to analyze the budget.”

And, last Monday night, District 5 Commission Charlie Harris warned against unwise spending. “Just because we’re not in the red now, we don’t need to spend money,” he said.

Barron said he believes the commission’s priority when it comes to spending money should be focused on roads and bridges.

“We need to keep our people safe when they’re traveling to work and school,” he said.

But ongoing shortfalls in road department revenues, generated primarily by state gas tax revenues, make that a challenge for the county. “That’s a lot of our problem with the road department,” Sullivan said.

“And I hope the road bill passes (in the state Legislature) this year. If that passes, it will put a patch on it, but it won’t heal it.”

Sullivan said the formula used to calculate gas tax revenues is the same one used in the late 1990s, and the outdated one doesn’t address today’s needs. “Every time we go to Montgomery we address this,” he said. “All the counties except for a few have the same problem.”

Adding to the problems are cash flow concerns caused by emergencies, such as the cleanup from flooding damage that occurred earlier this year. Although the county was eligible to receive FEMA funding for the cleanup, it was forced to pay for the work to be done and wait several months for the reimbursement from the federal government.

That reimbursement came recently, some $685,000. “When you have an emergency, you still have to pay for everything to get done, and when you’re talking about an $80,000 surplus, well that’s not much surplus at all,” Barron said.

Still, Sullivan said he is “optimistic” about the fiscal year 2011 budget. Particularly since it involves the word “surplus” while still maintaining the county’s rigorous debt repayment plan.

“The first year I was a commissioner, we were in the budget hearing and someone said, ‘it ain’t going to matter because in six months we’re going to have to borrow money to finish the year out.’,” he said.

Four years later, in 2008, the commission was able to make it through the year without borrowing money, and the county had begun a 10-year debt repayment plan.

“We did it again in 2009 and it looks like we’ll be able to do it in 2010,” Sullivan said of ending with a surplus.

“I’m proud of that. And that’s what we’re trying to do with this budget: project low and hope we come in just a little under that.”