Polk to consider new budget Monday, June 16

Published 10:01 pm Thursday, June 12, 2014

by Leah Justice
Polk County Commissioners are set to approve the 2014-2015 budget with no tax increases on Monday, June 16.
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Womack building in Columbus.
Commissioners held budget worksessions on May 19 and May 20 and held a public hearing on the proposed budget during its last meeting on June 2.
A couple residents opposed items in the proposed budget, including a reduction in Lake Adger Dam savings and taking capital expenditures out of fund balance.
Sky Conard with the Green River Watershed Alliance said she strongly opposes the reduction in Turner Shoals Dam savings in next year’s budget proposal.
“We need to be going the other way and reinforcing our investments into this asset and repair this infrastructure which holds our other greatest asset….our future drinking water for Polk County,” Conard said. “Without a dam we have no water supplies to offer.”
Conard said it is incongruent and illogical to her that the more professional studies, analysis, safety inspections, warnings and remedial options and recommendations the county receives about its 90-year old dam, the more the county runs from its obligations to act on any of them.
The county began several years ago placing $200,000 a year in savings for dam repairs, but this year budgeted $100,000 and next year is proposing $50,000.
Conard said estimates for repairs are in the $2.5-$3.5 million range and the county is instead dealing with low-ticket items, like weed pulling.
“I understand that balancing the county’s budget is an important aspect of our commissioners’ duties,”Conard said, but to not comprehend the priorities of investing in safe dam operation and repairs; thereby jeopardizing the county’s drinking water resources and the public safety, is simply not right.”
She said planning to defund the reserves for the dam repairs from
$200,000 to $100,000, then to $50,000, “would be extremely short sighted, irresponsible and defiantly going in the wrong direction.”
Renée McDermott said the county gave a small window of opportunity to comment on the budget after presenting it only the Friday prior to the public hearing.
McDermott also said once again, the proposed budget calls for expendable items and maintenance costs capital items to be taken from the fund balance.
“That’s wrong,” said McDermott. “That’s pilfering from the fund balance to make up for what would otherwise be a deficit in the budget.”
McDermott also said she appreciates the county providing the school system with the funds it requested but questioned why the county’s economic development budget is decreased.
“I’m surprised, however, given all your talk about supporting economic development in Polk County, and all your talk about bringing jobs to Polk County, that you’re actually proposing to decrease the economic budget (by 1.53 percent),” McDermott said. “That’s contradictory.”
McDermott also questioned why there are no funds in next year’s budget proposal for a new tag office, since the county had on the agenda that it has been approved to run its own office by the state.
“I understand that the state says that the tag office will require the services of two employees,” McDermott said. “What will that cost? And where is it in the budget?”
Commissioner Ray Gasperson said in order to balance the proposed budget it will require $315,000 to be pulled from fund balance plus take a very aggressive approach towards projected revenues and he believes that is very risky fiscal policy.
“This is the same approach that was taken last year when $415,000 was pulled from the fund balance in order to balance the current year’s budget,” Gasperson said. “Why do we have to keep jumping off the same fiscal cliff?”
Gasperson suggested the county pay off a $2.7 million loan from fund balance, which would remove $600,000 for debt service in the proposed budget. He said that way, there would no longer be a need to pull $315,000 from fund balance simply to balance the budget and the county could add funding to the Lake Adger Dam repair fund. Gasperson said the county could also add $60,000 to the budget for salary increases so employees could receive a 2.5 percent raise instead of the proposed one percent to begin Jan. 1, 2015.
“This would hopefully help with employee morale, which was already suffering greatly last year,” Gasperson said, “and took another severe blow after the $178,590 payout to former county manager Ryan Whitson.”
Commissioner Tom Pack asked Gasperson, “so you’re proposing to pull $2.7 million from fund balance instead of $315,000?”
Pack asked why the county doesn’t pay off the department of social service (DSS) building debt instead of the middle school and recreation park loan Gasperson was discussing. Pack said the county can’t pay off the DSS debt early because the previous board approved a loan with early pay-off penalties.
Commissioner chair Ted Owens said he doesn’t know why Gasperson didn’t bring up his suggestion during budget worksessions.
Gasperson said there are items in the proposed budget that he widely supports, such as funding for schools and employee positions. He said it took him a while to come up with his proposal.
Commissioner Keith Holbert said he wondered why Gasperson all of a sudden thinks it’s prudent to give a 2.5 percent pay raise when he denied pay raises in previous years and paid off debt.
Gasperson said the economy was different during those times and challenged Holbert to search other counties during that period who didn’t have layoffs or furloughs when Polk County did not.
Holbert said Gasperson’s board inherited an $8 million fund balance, so it would have been pretty easy to go through with that.
Commissioner Michael Gage said he thinks it’s a good budget with support to the schools and working out an additional school resource officer.
He said the budget isn’t perfect, but that all five commissioners worked well together on the proposal in worksessions.
Owens said he agrees with Gage. Owens said he thinks if department heads are asked about the budget proposal they would likely say they received more of what they wanted than they ever have.
“I feel like this budget has accomplished and covers a lot of things previous years did not, such as the DSS position,” Owens said.
The county’s new budget for fiscal year 2014-2015 begins July 1.

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