Commission budget work session set for Sept. 13

By ED HOWELL
Posted 8/21/18

The Walker County Commission will hold a budget work session on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 10 a.m., with the possibility of passing a budget at the next commission meeting the following Monday, Sept. …

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Commission budget work session set for Sept. 13

Posted

The Walker County Commission will hold a budget work session on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 10 a.m., with the possibility of passing a budget at the next commission meeting the following Monday, Sept. 17. 

The work session will be the next meeting of the commission. At Monday's commission session, the Monday, Sept. 3, meeting was cancelled due to Labor Day. 

According to District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who has worked closely with the budgets in the past, commissioners are facing what is expected to be a level budget to work out for Fiscal 2019, which begins on Oct. 1. He said that is based on preliminary figures. 

Davis said that after the Sept. 13 meeting, "the next meeting will be on the 17th. If we're not finished with the budget then, we could always call a meeting the following week to approve the budget." 

Commissioners are still under the cloud of tight finances in the wake of the 1-cent sale tax failing at the polls a year ago. The tax proposal, which was projected to raise $7 million a year, was rejected by a vote of 6,564, or 52 percent, to 6,034, or 48 percent, during a referendum Aug. 15, 2017.

The commission was able to get over its biggest hurdle, the first payment of principal on a $1.5 million bond issue payment due starting in February. The commission owes about $1.5 a year for about 15 years. 

It undertook a number of measures, including hiring freezes, renegotiating prison medical bills and making equipment purchases designed to pay for themselves and save money in time, such as with an upcoming phone system. Payments to various charities were eliminated completely from the budget. 

However, the budget has still been tight, and has been a source of concern at the commission office, especially involving spending at the Sheriff's Office. The commission voted in emergency session in July to place spending constraints on the Sheriff's Office, indicating that the office was trending about $350,000 over budget for the year. That figure was down to $295,000 by this week, according to county administrator Robbie Dickerson. 

The emergency measures ended overtime without approval from the commission, put on a hiring freeze, and put limits or prior approval requirements on purchase orders. Fuel purchases except for prisoner transportation were restricted to the Reladyne (Hager) terminal in Jasper. Statements for discretionary funds were to be delivered to the commissioner chairman. 

Sheriff Jim Underwood still has a lawsuit against the commission involving funds he thinks he is owed to adequately fund his office and the jail, as well as a suit against the commission concerning their desire for the sheriff to take over the responsibility of feeding prisoners. 

Press reports over the weekend indicate that Gov. Kay Ivey has stated the state comptroller has updated an agreement with county sheriffs to pocket leftover funds they have after feeding county inmates. Funds under a new agreement will have to be spent on preparing and serving food, as well as other related services. However, some critics have already stated only the Legislature can make those decisions. 

After Monday's meeting, Chairman Jerry Bishop said commissioners have not discussed new revenue for the budget, but they likely will at the Sept. 13 meeting. In December, District 3 Walker County Commissioner Ralph Williams said he is in favor of not only a countywide alcohol referendum, but also reintroducing a 1-cent sales tax to put on the ballot — with the penny tax to go for the debt first, and with leftover funds for roads. 

Last year's failed referendum, by way of enabling legislation, called for debt to be paid off the top, followed in priority by $500,000 annually for public safety needs, $200,000 a year for volunteer fire departments, and $100,000 each year for economic development. Of the balance after that, 10 percent would go to local municipalities for road and bridge needs, possibly amounting to about $470,000 a year. Finally, the rest of the funds would go to the county’s road and bridge needs, estimated at $4.23 million each year for the county.

The proposal also would have ended a $10 car tag and boat registration fee, but as the referendum failed, that remains in effect. 

Bishop said Monday, "We've had lots of people to tell us, 'Let's vote on that tax again,'" in a revised version. 

He said the county would be fine on its finances to conclude Fiscal 2018 on Sept. 31. 

The commission would probably try to get through the first quarter of Fiscal 2019, or October through December, before seriously trying to take steps to address revenue. The Alabama Legislature, which would likely have to have a hand in the matter, will convene next year on March 5, but of more importance is that another major note payment will be made in February. 

Bishop said, "It's hard to save money to make a big bond payment," while at the same time also keeping money set aside to possibly pay off a recent court decision that recently went against the commission. 

The suit goes back to a finding by state auditors the commission had wrongly kept $1.2 million from a fee for collecting sales tax monies to later be distributed to the Walker County and Jasper City boards of education. The county is now appealing the decision, although Bishop recently said most of the money for any reward to the schools is set aside, and that it would not take long to get the rest — although he added it is possible the county would be allowed to pay in installments to deal with cash flow. 

At the end of Monday's meeting, Bishop said the county does not have money to do the things it would like to do. 

He said he wished it could be true when people say, "Well, they're wasting their money."

"We're not. We don't have it to waste. That is the sad part of it," he said. "We're just going to try to work forward and come up with something to give us some more money because our citizens deserve to drive on decent roads. They deserve not to have all that litter on the side of the road."