Monday, June 13, 2011

Oconee County Budget Contains No Millage Rate Increase, A Lower Draw on Savings and Fee Increases

June 21 Vote Scheduled

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners meets on Tuesday night, it will be to review a $33.2 million budget for Fiscal Year 2012 that is balanced without a millage rate increase.

The General Fund component of the budget, which is $1.3 million lower than for the current fiscal year, includes a transfer of $505,787 from the county’s surplus. To balance the current fiscal year budget, the county transferred $1,157,894 from the surplus account.

The budget also includes significant fee increases for parks and recreation, water and sewer.

Funding for law enforcement, the jail, public works and parks and recreation–the largest items in the 2012 General Fund budget–are all down from a year ago.

The sheriff cut $329,234 from his law enforcement budget and $154,200 from the operation of the jail. He projected jail revenues to remain flat at $217,500.

The Public Works Department budget is down $200,693 from a year earlier.

The budget for the Parks and Recreation Department is $179,137 lower than in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Parks and Recreation will raise an additional $102,160 this coming year with fee increases.

Fees for most youth programs will go up $10 per person. The same is true for most summer sports camps. Fitness program membership will double in cost.

The $19.4 million General Fund budget is the largest part of the overall $33.2 million budget for the county, which is $2.9 million lower than the current total budget of $36.1 million.

The total budget includes $4.8 million in spending from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, $3.4 million in spending from special revenue funds such as the emergency telephone system and the hotel/motel tax, and $7.1 million for the Utility Department.

The Utility Department budget is up 11.3 percent from the current budget of $6.4 million and includes rate increases for both water and sewer use. Base fee increases are 6.1 percent and 8.3 percent respectively.

The total budget includes $1.4 million of transfer of funds within those separate accounts, bringing the overall figure to $33.2 rather than $34.6 million.

Citizens will get a chance to comment on the budget on Tuesday night, the first of two called meetings to provide for public hearings.

The meeting on Tuesday is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.

The second called meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on June 21 and is to be followed by a meeting of the commissioners at 7 p.m., at which they are to vote on the budget. Both of these meetings will be in the courthouse.

Jeff Benko, April 2010

County Finance Director Jeff Benko presented the budget to the commissoners on June 7 with a memo explaining the changes he had made since the commissioners last reviewed the budget in detail on May 26.

He also gave a briefing after the meeting for reporters from the Athens Banner-Herald, The Oconee Enterprise and OconeePatch, all of whom were in attendance.

The county also has put details of the proposed 2012 budget as well as details of budgets for the last three years on the county’s web site.

In the memo Benko gave to commissioners he said balancing the budget was a “very demanding process.” He said the budget maintains the “fiscal stability of Oconee County looking long range.”

Benko said “we will persevere through this challenging time as a more efficient organization.”

Benko gave me a copy of his memo and a spreadsheet he gave commissioners. It provides details on how each department responded to requests for cuts from current funding levels.

It also contains $110,659 in revenue not shown in earlier versions of the 2012 budget, including $89,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department.

The new budget reflects closing of the community center in Bishop and the Daniells House on Founders Boulevard. The Civic Center budget, which includes the Daniells House, is $52,838 less for Fiscal Year 2012 than for the current year.

Benko told me in an email message on June 8 that the budget does not reflect any savings from a proposed early retirement program. The costs of such an incentive program also are not included.

Benko said the commissioners have not indicated “when and if” such a plan will be put into place.

The county currently has 236 full-time employees, Benko said.

Many department heads had indicated, according to the spreadsheet Benko gave me, that they could not reduce their budgets without cutting personnel.

As I wrote in a posting on May 16, the largest item in the Utility Department budget is debt service.

To pay off bonds sold to finance utility projects, the department in 2012 will spend $3.2 million or 44.0 percent of its budget. This is an increase of 6.7 percent from the amount it will have spent on debt payments in the current fiscal year.

Of the debt services for next year, $890,000, or 27.9 percent, is from the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project, a partnership of Oconee and Walton counties. If that figure were absent from the Utility department budget, the 2012 budget would be $6,220,500.

After I wrote that story, I asked Benko to give me the payment schedule for the $19.5 million bond sold for Hard Labor Creek in March of 2008.

That schedule shows that annual interest rates range from 4 percent to 4.5 percent and that the maturity date is February of 2038.

The Fiscal Year 2012 budget includes $890,000 in interest, but no payment against principal. The schedule does not call for payments against the principal until 2015. That year and for the remainder of the bond’s life the county is scheduled to make a payment of $1.4 million

The total cost of the bond repayment in 2038 is scheduled to be $38.3 million, representing the $19.5 principal and $18.8 in interest.

The counties do not have enough money to build the reservoir or water treatment plant and are seeking state funding to cover some of those costs.