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Hearing sees tension in budget balancing approaches
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Tensions on how to trim the 2010 proposed budget were on display at the county’s public appropriations hearing Monday morning.

The Board of Commissioners reviewed a proposed budget totaling $54.9 million, which would include seven unpaid holidays for county employees, a significant bump in health insurance premiums and an unspecified raise in property taxes.

The proposed budget was about $2.2 million less than the initial department requests but still about $1.5 million short of a previously discussed target amount of $53.3 million.

The proposed budget as presented would also require a raise in the millage rate, the amount of which was not discussed. The millage rate, which is set in the summer after property assessments are completed, has remained at 14.53 mills (a mill is $1 per $1000 in value) since 2005.

The biggest expenditures in the proposed budget – about 50 percent – were for the sheriff’s office, jail and fire department, according to Finance Director Roselyn Miller.

“That is where our priority is – public safety,” said Miller.

The proposed budget would include funds for nine new positions and 16 reclassifications, mostly for the jail expansion and the fire department’s new fire station.

There would be 16 firefighters reclassified in order to operate equipment and properly man the station, explained Fire Chief Cedric Scott. There would also be six new deputies for the jail expansion, a new purchasing officer and deputy director of development in finance and an engineering manager for transportation. Those new positions would add about $782,000 or 1 percent to the budget.

To reduce the budget, in addition to $1.5 million of cuts in department expenses, there would be cuts in employee benefits and compensations. County employees would be asked to pay 12 to 18 percent more in their health insurance premiums, have seven unpaid holidays and 10 unfilled positions would be eliminated from the payroll according to Miller. That would bring a savings of about $1.6 million, or 3 percent.

Commissioner Ja Nice Van Ness said she had been hoping to see a list of what services or positions could be cut.

“That’s been continually said for a couple of months, but nobody’s sat down and made a list of what that would look like. I think we need to develop a list of those things so the public can really see what options we would have going forward,” she said.

She suggested starting that list with the recreation division, such as closing down Johnson Park for a day, or having employees work 10 hour days and be close for one day or week or month, or closing the library for additional days.

“Although it’s painful the library’s not open on a Sunday, I haven’t heard anybody complain about it. You just adjust. In this economy, we’re just all grateful to have options available to us.”

Commissioner Oz Nesbitt pointed out he had submitted a list of 34 positions, most of which were part time, that could be eliminated for a savings of what he estimated was $780,000.

Chairman Richard Oden said, “We can cut out the tennis center, we can cut out recreation, but keep in mind we start cutting these services, we’re going to have kids out here on these streets and that means the sheriff is going to have a higher workload. We’ve got to be very careful in delivering those cuts.”

“I’m confident that budget we have before you today gives you a balanced budget,” said Oden. “We can still consider going into 2010 making additional cuts.”

“Everything else is just semantics… All this grandstanding is not necessary to go forward.”

“Grandstanding?” Van Ness asked. “We’re actually having a conversation about the budget. That’s what our job is.”

Van Ness objected to the millage rate increase in the proposed budget. “I’m certainly not in favor of raising millage, especially when we may have to reduce the HOST (exemption) too.”

A BOC called meeting that would go into executive session to discuss personnel matters was set for Tuesday, 4 p.m.