Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oconee Commissioners Face Difficult Choices in Battle to Balance Budget

6 Patrol Vehicles/323 Radios

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners meets tomorrow night to try to reconcile the $3.8 gap between budget requests for fiscal year 2012 with projected revenue, it will have to deal with the following:

A request for six patrol vehicles from the sheriff, at a cost of $198,000.

A request for soccer goals, repair to a walking path and web site upgrades from the Parks and Recreation Department, at a cost of $24,650.

A request for purchase of 323 radios for the county’s upgraded Emergency 911 service at a cost of $1.2 million.

The county’s four constitutional officers and departments ranging from Animal Countrol to Tourism told the commissioners they need $22.6 million to operate in 2012.

Finance Director Jeff Benko is telling the commissioners he anticipates the county will have only $18.8 in revenue.

At the called meeting of commissioners last Tuesday night, Chairman Melvin Davis suggested that the starting point for discussions of the 2012 budget should be the current 2011 budget of $20.8 million.

Going back to the 2011 budget would mean that the six patrol vehicles, the soccer goals, walking path repair, web site upgrades and 323 radios would have to go.

The other four commissioners agreed with Davis, but they and Davis also acknowledged that there would have to be exceptions, such as for public safety and other crucial services.

And even if the 2011 budget is the base, the county is still going to be $2 million in the hole, meaning even deeper cuts, increased spending of reserves, or tax and fee increases will have to be considered.

Benko has said he doesn’t think the county can spend more than about $1 million from reserves without jeopardizing county operations and financial ratings.

The budget request of the four constitutional officers–the sheriff, tax commissioner, probate court judge, and clerk of courts–is most difficult. The BOC is obligated to fund these officers at levels the officers require.

The sheriff stands out among these three because of the scope of his activities, the fact that public safety is important to most everyone and his political power.

Among county departments, Parks and Recreation is a big player as well, because lots of people take advantage of what it does.

The Utility Department provides water to many customers and sewage to commercial properties and a small number of homeowners. But it is expected to generate its own revenue through sales of its services, so it is outside the $20.8 million General Fund budget that is likely to be the center of discussion tomorrow night.

That meeting is open to the public and will begin at 7 p.m. at the courthouse.

The public will not necessarily be given a chance to speak at the meeting. Public hearings on the budget are set for May 31 and June 7, only after the final budget has been agreed upon by the Board of Commissioners.

The 2012 budget goes into effect on July 1 of this year.

The county has not released the budget requests of the departments or the constitutional officers.

I filed an open records request for four of those budgets, for Parks and Recreation, Public Works, the sheriff and the Utility Department.

I wrote about the Utility Department budget, which includes a request for fee hikes for water and sewer services, on May 16.

The budget prepared by Sheriff Scott Berry covers three areas—law enforcement, the jail and Emergency 911. The total budget request for these three for 2012 is $7.8 million, up from $6.5 million in the current fiscal year.

The cost of the jail is flat. The increase in law enforcement is largely the result of the request for the six patrol vehicles.

The sheriff asked for new patrol vehicles last year as well and delayed purchasing them because of last year’s budget problems.

The new radios for the Emergency 911 system are needed because the county has to switch to a different frequency for its system.

Parks and Recreation is requesting the repair to the walking trail at the Bogart Sports Complex because the existing trail has been damaged by roots and is considered to be a safety hazard, according to the documents it submitted.

The web site upgrades will provide for more training of users and allow for self-posting of park and recreation events.

The soccer goals are needed to maximize field usage and rentals for tournament play, according to the budget request documents.

The Public Works Department budget request for 2012 , at just under $2.5 million, is $31,398 less than a year before.

Public Works Director Emil Beshara also submitted a separate budget for Solid Waste. That budget request, at $528,776, was the same as a year earlier.

Personnel costs were static in the Public Works, Solid Waste, Law Enforcement, Jail and E-911 budgets.

Parks and Recreation requested $9,725 in additional personnel costs for operation of the Community Center and additional park maintenance support.