“It’s been a long haul, and we’ve gone over it for several months now line-by-line,” said Carroll County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Chappell. “We’ve had discussions with department heads, and heard their requests. But we did not make any commitments.”
The current county budget is $50.1 million for this fiscal year, which will end on June 30. Chappell’s proposed budget would reduce that amount to $47.7 million next year to match declining revenues, a reduction of $2.4 million, or about 5 percent.
Chappell and county staff have been working for months to cut nearly $60 million in department requests while keeping taxes at their current rates. Last year, the Board of Commissioners raised property taxes dramatically to help pay off a budget crisis spurred in part by a sudden rise in health care costs, which couldn’t be covered by the county’s significantly depleted cash reserves.
Those cash reserves won’t be immediately replenished with this budget. Not only is there no money left over to build up what is in effect the county’s saving account, cash is so tight that not a single “capital” budget request -- for physical items, such as new copiers, ice machines, etc. -- has been granted other than leases on buildings the county rents.
Chappell said he and County Comptroller Don Johnson had been exceptionally conservative in estimating revenues, and said he hoped for some money remaining for the cash reserves by the end of next year. Chappell said he hoped to get some of those capital item requests on the 2008 special purpose local option sales tax ballot, which will also be finalized sometime in the next couple of months.
In this first draft of the budget, the fire department’s funds have been reduced by about $600,000, to about $6.9 million. Chief Gary Thomas said he needed to see specifically where the budget had been cut before further commenting, but said those cuts could affect service.
“If that’s in certain areas, that could definitely impact service,” Thomas said. “If those are in the salary or overtime lines, then definitely, that relates right to personnel. That’s a pretty good chunk.”
Other departments have seen cuts, too. Public works could face a reduction of more than $300,000, though Joe Shaw, the department’s director, said he understood he had to be “realistic” about his budget requests.
“Can I live with it?” Shaw said lightheartedly. “Yes I will, because that’s all they gave me.”
The legal department’s budget has been cut, too, by about $100,000. Chappell had said previously that he thought the county could save money by outsourcing its county attorney -- who is now Tommy Greer of Thomas E. Greer LLC -- and use the money to create a new position labeled “special projects coordinator” in the commissioner’s office, a proposal that had drawn some criticism from county commissioners. Chappell said plans to create that position have been postponed, and the new position is not currently factored into this year’s budget.
While staff expected declining revenues in general, the county anticipates a few extra hundred thousand dollars in property taxes next year from new property valuations, and that’s not factoring in a proposed, countywide property assessment, which could raise that portion of money - and property taxes - considerably. The Board of Tax Assessors, a separate, independent body, will decide sometime around November whether it wants to perform that assessment in 2009.
Johnson was unavailable for comment because he is currently overseas on military duty. But according to the budget, staff expect the 1 percent local option sales tax, the county’s second biggest money maker, to bring in roughly the same amount of money as last year -- about $10.7 million.
The budget projects the biggest decreases to affect a litany of other, smaller revenue generators, such as permit and licensing fees, and miscellaneous income, which includes bad check fees.
Chappell will present his proposed budget to the Board of Commissioners on May 6. The board must then agree to advertise the budget, including running public copies of it in the Times-Georgian, as well as holding a public hearing. The budget must be ratified by the last day of this fiscal year, which is June 30.
The sheriff’s department’s budget increased slightly by a little more than $100,000, to about $12.5 million.
Brad Robinson, chief deputy at the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department, said he and Sheriff Terry Langley had hoped to get all their budget requests in -- such as more manpower to guard the courthouse and jail -- but understood Chappell, county staff and the board had some hard decisions to make because of the economy.
“We didn’t think we’d get additional manpower, though I can say we do need it, but I do understand when funds are tight, the money’s not there,” Robinson said. “We understand and respect the decision by the commissioners, and even if we don’t get them (extra funds), we’ll operate with what we have.”