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LawCo budget scrutizined at public hearing

Friday, January 21, 2011

By MURRAY BISHOFF

The Lawrence County Commission took questions for an hour and 45 minutes on Wednesday about the county's proposed budget for 2011. Anticipating a $102,000 drop in revenue, commissioners called for major cuts in law enforcement spending and heard from a delegation of 22 officers who protested the plan.

County Clerk Gary Emerson reported the county completed 2010 with a deficit of approximately $25,000. Revenues were down $161,822. Most county offices held down spending or completed the year under budget. The sheriff's department and the jail closed the year at $28,000 under budget.

The most noteworthy overage in spending came from the county's legal bill for challenging Monett's tax increment financing (TIF) program. Emerson said the county's legal counsel had estimated costs at $25,000 and the final bill came in $67,000 higher. Another $75,000 is expected to be spent in 2011.

The county tried to save money by refinancing its bond issue to build the Justice Center. Emerson said the Internal Revenue Service took all of the $147,899 savings.

2011 spending plan

For 2011, the commissioners crafted a budget fairly close to 2010 numbers. Emerson said increases in the cost of utilities, supplies and services will boost the buildings and grounds budget. The circuit court would have additional expenses to start a drug court like the one operating in Barry and Stone counties.

To save money, commissioners opted to cancel holiday pay for the sheriff's department and jail staff. Emerson said the move would save approximately $30,000. No other cuts in staffing or pay were proposed.

The proposal would reduce the sheriff's budget by $4,000 from actual spending in 2010. The jail budget, without the expense of housing prisoners in other counties while the jail was closed, dropped $52,000 from what had been spent in 2010.

Sheriff Brad DeLay protested, saying the elimination of holiday pay amounted to a 5 percent pay cut for his staff. DeLay expected he would have to significantly reduce staff for the 14 days employees get off.

"It's not fair," DeLay said. "There's got to be a different way than punishing us for what we're doing."

Emerson said a court ruling in Lincoln County in 2010 determined a county commission can amend a budget to increase spending if revenues increase but cannot amend a budget down for less spending. Planning to spend less was the only option.

"We're not going to get rid of any jobs," Presiding Commissioner Sam Goodman said. "In every county budget law enforcement is the area that takes the biggest hit. We looked at a lot of possibilities. This is the best scenario we could come up with for how to handle it."

Departments reviewed

The rest of the budget generated little concern. Circuit Court Clerk Steve Kahre said his video conferencing equipment was up and running and should save the county money on transporting prisoners.

Kahre said creation of a drug court and possibly a DWI court "in a few years" would help break the cycle of returning offenders. The program received $3,300 in the budget. Kahre said the county had filed to be part of grant funding received by the other drug court programs in the 39th Judicial Circuit.

Prosecutor Don Trotter anticipated very little change in the prosecutor's office. He was keeping former prosecutor Robert George's staff in place and made only a few policy changes. The prosecutor's budget was set a few hundred dollars below 2010 levels.

The health department, which varies in spending from year to year depending on income from grants, expected a major spending reduction. Director Alethea Goodman said the department received $122,000 for H1N1 flu vaccinations in 2010 and is getting $40,000 in 2011. Other state funding had been cut and Goodman said she made appropriate adjustments.

Treasurer Sharon Kleine said she was trying to get by on essentially the same budget with a new fax line plus a machine handed down from another office.

Road maintenance has gotten much more difficult, according to Western Commissioner Rodney Barnes. Chip and seal costs for one mile of road have risen from $7,000 three years ago to over $16,000. Barnes said rural road districts are having a hard time managing under the tighter economy.

The federal Off-System Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (BRO) still seems to have money in it, and the county is pursuing two road projects this year.

Deputies defend pay

With no other problems found in the budget, deputies asked why they were singled out for salary cuts. Goodman said other departments had comp time and the opportunity to work at different times. In response, deputies pointed out their W-2 forms would show they earned less in the year.

Deputies asked the commissioners to consider ways to spread the pay reduction evenly with other county employees, or for the officeholders to share in the reduction. DeLay asked if there was some way to chip and seal fewer roads to leave more money for employees, as a matter of preserving safety.

Barnes said road construction money cannot go to salaries. State statutes also do not allow elected officials to take any less than the law mandates. Emerson said many expenses are paid by special funds with the departments and not from the general fund.

Public safety with fewer officers on duty, an increase in domestic violence incidents during holidays and danger to officers if the jail staff was reduced all came up as reasons to keep holiday pay in place. The commissioners said they appreciated the points raised and would consider them before making a final decision.

By the end of the day, the proposed budget was adopted without any further changes.



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