Due to budgetary concerns, the county commission Monday night voted 12-2 to adopt the new consolidated budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year with a freeze on the wages of county general employees at current levels until at least January.
The county property tax rate will not be increased this year.
The wage freeze, which was recommended by the budget committee, will apply to employees of county officials at the courthouse and county complex along with the sheriff’s department, EMS, library, and solid waste departments and the Senior Center Director. It will not include employees of the County Highway and School System because those departments have their own budgets.
The action was taken because anticipated expenditures were to exceed revenues by more than $818,000 during the new budget year. Even with the wage freeze, the county could still go into cash reserves by as much as $624,000 during the year.
The budget committee plans to revisit the issue again in January. If the budget picture looks better by then employees due a step raise this year could be allowed to get them as of January, 2018 or retroactive to July 1, 2017.
All county general employees were given pay raises last year under a new wage scale.
Prior to asking for the wage freeze, the budget committee had voted to recommend changes in the existing pay scale for county general employees but that plan ultimately was not included as part of the new budget.
The proposed $42.9 million spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year is funded by local, state, and federal dollars.
The local property tax rate remains the same at $1.8335 per $100 of assessed value to be divided among the funds as follows:
County General: 0.9635 cents
Highway/Public Works: 0.0300 cents
General Capital Projects: 0.1100 cents
Debt Service: 0.1200 cents
General Purpose Schools: 0.6100 cents
One cent of the property tax rate generates $46,125 at a 6.33% delinquency rate.
Two commissioners, Julie Young in the first district and Betty Atnip from the sixth district voted against the budget.
During the public hearing prior to the meeting, Atnip said she is concerned about overspending which could result in a need for a property tax increase within a couple of years if it continues.
“I guess my main concern is we did a tax increase (two years ago) and we promised the people that is was going to last them for a long time before we had to ask for any more money. But now with the way it’s going, in two years we’re going to have to go in and say “we need more money and we’re going to have to raise your taxes to run this county because we keep increasing everything. In fairness to the people of DeKalb County and the people we’re supposed to be taking care of, I don’t feel that its been watched close enough and that we’re over spending. I think if we were doing our jobs like we were supposed to be, we’re supposed to be watching this and we’re supposed to be keeping it under budget and not all this over budget of everything. I think we’re doing the people of the county wrong,” said Atnip.
Steve Bates, the county’s financial advisor, said that problem may not really be as significant as first thought. “ We don’t think we’ll go into cash near what we thought we would. There are some outstanding issues. For example, the budget committee made a recommendation to start doing your own billing for the ambulance service. You won’t have to pay that fee (for a private company to do the billing) so we can try to come out of this downward trend that the budget committee sees going forward to avoid any tax increase or to postpone it as long as possible. Unfortunately, like most things the cost of government grows, the cost of things grows but what we want to try to do is stay ahead,” said Bates.
Budget highlights include the following:
*Over the last three years, the county has contracted the EMS patient billing duties to a private company but doesn’t plan to renew the agreement this year due to declining revenues. Those responsibilities will be returned in-house to the ambulance service this fall after notice is given to the billing company.
“We projected more than $1 million in EMS revenue this past year but will fall short in collections from patient charges,” said County Mayor Tim Stribling. EMS management attributes much of the shortfall to a decline in the run volume this past year.
*The budget committee recommended and the county has approved a new policy for the ambulance service to charge patients $125 per call upon the third response within 30 days if they request an ambulance for assistance but then sign a form refusing treatment or transport to the hospital.
*The county highway fund currently gets four cents of the local property tax rate, but since the department is budgeted to get an additional $331,351 this year from the state due to an increase in the gas tax, the county is taking one cent of the property tax rate from the highway department ($46,125) and putting it toward county general.
*The budget for the sheriff’s department includes a $25,000 increase in overtime pay, primarily to catch up from the county not having adjusted pay for overtime in recent years according to Sheriff Patrick Ray.
*Due to rising costs for inmate medical and dental services, a $25,000 increase is included in the new budget putting that line item at $100,000, but Sheriff Ray said he is hopeful that the increase can be offset during the year from other areas of the sheriff’s department budget.
*The county plans to purchase and equip five new patrol cars for the sheriff’s department. A total of $165,000 is included in the capital projects appropriations for this purchase.
*Two years ago the county commission set aside $25,000 as seed money for the eventual development of a new fire hall in the Four Seasons Community. Last year another $50,000 was added for a total of $75,000 for this project. This year the fund totals $100,000 with the addition of another $25,000.
*The county is getting matching grant funds to purchase firefighting equipment, possibly a fire truck. The total is $43,000 with the local match being $28,000.
*The Capital Projects fund also includes an appropriation of $145,000 for the purchase of a solid waste department roll back truck, $40,000 for possible repairs to the steps outside the courthouse; $10,000 for repairs and upgrades at the veterans building; and $10,000 in repairs to the Omega factory building if needed.
*A total of $9,000 has been budgeted again this year to be divided among six ball fields in the county at $1,500 each to make improvements.
*The cities of Smithville, Alexandria, and Liberty will have to share more of the costs for county property reappraisals and personal property audits.
The county commission has established fees for the cities but to keep the municipalities from having to pay the full amount this year the costs will be phased in over a three year period.
Smithville will be required to pay this year approximately $5,410. Liberty’s share this year will be about $434. Alexandria will be billed for approximately $944 this year.
*The County Highway Department budget has $150,000 in funding for the purchase of equipment including a trackhoe to be used at the rock crusher instead of a rental; $20,000 for the purchase of a used truck for road patching projects; $15,000 for maintenance and repairs to the building where the department is located; and pay raises are included for employees. The department is budgeted to receive an additional $331,351 in state gas tax funds and an extra $140,898 in state aid funding but the state bridge program allocation has dropped from $504,440 this past year year to $80,000 for the coming year.
*The county is taking steps to close the landfill with the solid waste transfer station now in full operation.
“ We will close the existing Class I cell as soon as possible. We are now underway with closing half the existing cell with a final cover and the other half will be closed either this year or next year but almost all the county’s garbage is now going to the transfer station instead of the landfill. The only thing going to the landfill now is construction debris from cans we rent out from my office. We also run a garbage truck on Sundays to pick up four or five boxes at some places in the county. We talked about opening a Class III landfill cell for construction debris but decided to just close the entire landfill operation and transition everything to the transfer station which is now being operated by a private company under contract with the county. Our manned convenience sites will remain open. We anticipate the county issuing debt to replace funds previously expended in the landfill operation and for final phase of closure. It is estimated that the size of the borrowing could be approximately $1.5 to $2 million for final closure,” said County Mayor Stribling.
*Although the school system is bracing for a cut in federal funding the state is sending about one million dollars more Basic Education Program (BEP) funds this year totaling $15,962,000.
In addition to pay raises and the scheduled step increases, the board of education plans to add another teacher at DeKalb West School because the average class size is over 20 students in kindergarten to third grade. A new kindergarten teaching position in the school system could also be created as needed. The state is fully funding pre-kindergarten again this year in a $486,167 grant. The board also plans to spend more money on technology to bring one to one computer devices into the 6th to 8th grade classrooms.
“The state sent us $144,000 this year for teacher raises. That comes to about $600 per teacher. We have added a $250 one time bonus for non certified staff. We put in the budget about $200,000 more for technology in grades 6-8 for one to one devices," Director of Schools PatrickCripps.
One to one computers are electronic devices that allow students to access the Internet, digital course materials and digital textbooks. By providing students their own notebook computer or tablet, schools make it possible for students to find information instantly to produce rich multimedia content.
The new budget also includes $20,000 for a school building feasibility study. “We put in $20,000 for an architect to come in and do a study. It is my hope that with an architect study we will be able to get a break down of different school sizes (options) and what it would cost to build those schools,” he said.
The school budget also includes $130,000 for a new 96 passenger bus.
The general purpose school budget for 2017-18 totals just over $22 million dollars. Anticipated revenues are budgeted at $ 21.5 million. Almost $900,000 of the school's reserves may be needed to balance the budget on paper but that is less than last year’s projection. “We are trying to go less and less into our reserves and we have done that this year,” said Director Cripps.