Our county budget: A difference between the state and the feds

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By John Logan Brent

Today’s article will be the last in the series of county updates. Hopefully you have learned a few things about county government that you might not have known.

For this final article, I want to talk about the county budget. As far as I am concerned, putting the budget together and then monitoring it is the most important responsibility that my office and the magistrates have. There aremore than 210 line items in this year’s $5.9-million budget.

I take pride in having a feel for what we have spent and where we should be on any given day of the year. Our approach to the budget is much different than that of the state and feds.

You will never hear a Fiscal Court member say, “It’s getting close to the end of year, we had better spend the money or we won’t get it back next year.” I hear this all the time from various government agencies.

With this approach to managing money it’s no wonder why our country is in debt. Just because it’s in the budget doesn’t mean we have to spend it. A good example of this is our $50,000 renewals and repairs line item. We made it through last year with only $26,000 spent from this account. This year in a two-week time period we had three air conditioners and two water heaters go out. If that trend kept up for long we were going to need what we put back last year. Sounds simple, I know.

There are a dozen major county services and several miscellaneous items covered under the $5.9-million overall budget.

Of all of these services, there are four that make up 58 percent of the total budget.

The road budget, which must be kept separate from the general fund, is $1.2 million. The sheriff’s payroll — which is reimbursed by the sheriff — and the accompanying benefits ­— which Fiscal Court pays — together add up $724,000. The jail budget for this year is $629,500. The budget to operate the EMS/Paramedics services is $856,000.

It is interesting to watch trends develop as you analyze the budget from year to year.

From 1990 to 2003, the jail budget was up a staggering 400 percent. Thankfully, over the last 10 years it has been flat. Property and workers’ compensation insurance rose drastically in the early 2000s, but that has been flat the last six years. On the downside, our health insurance cost has doubled over the last decade. The trend in lower interest rates is evident in the county budget.

In the 2006/2007, budget we anticipated $71,000 in interest from the bank on our money. This year we budgeted $22,250.

As most of you know, the county funds the 911 emergency call center at the state police post primarily with a $1 per month surcharge that is on the landline phone bill. Nationwide, residential landlines have been reduced by one-third in the last three years. Our receipts show Henry Countians have dropped their landlines by one-fifth over the last three years. This is one of those times where I am glad we are behind.

Overall, I would rate the county’s finances as sound, but fragile. Maintaining a healthy reserve is the basis for our soundness. The fact that we have so many mandatory expenses makes for an inherently delicate budget. Holding what expenses we have control over down, and looking for creative ways to generate income without raising taxes, must be the game plan.

Expanding our EMS non-emergency transports is a good example of income generation without taxation. The county is up $50,000 in EMS revenues over the first quarter of last year because of this push. I am proud of the fact that we provide the services we do with only one major tax, that coming from property. Every surrounding county has either an occupational tax or an insurance premium tax.

Even Trimble County, with a landfill that contributes $700,000 - 800,000 to their bottom line, put in an insurance premium tax this past year.

Every April, Fiscal Court meets to approve a new budget. The public is welcome to attend and learn about the budget as we go over each line item. If you have questions about the budget or specific areas of county government please call our office at 845-5707.