Commission seeing better budget numbers

Despite the need for more road and bridge funds, Walker County Commission heard numbers on Monday indicating the General Fund overall has been in better shape this fiscal year, while solid waste has a surplus.

A wide-ranging work session was kicked off with a budget  review from County Administrator Robbie Dickerson after one quarter and several weeks into the fiscal year.

Dickerson spoke on projections on how Fiscal 2019 will end up based on current spending trends. While road and bridge needs are still problematic due to lack of revenue, other areas of the budget are looking up.  

"Basically the projected difference at the end of the fiscal year is basically what we began the year with," she said. "Our revenue and our expenditures within our budget are pretty much the same."

That report was greatly improved from last fiscal year.  At one point in 2017, as much as $1.8 million was projected as a deficit for Fiscal 2018, as the county was to start paying $1.5 million in bond payments in calendar year 2018 and as principal will finally start to come due after being put off a number of years. 

A freeze on new, full-time and part-time employees was passed in 2017 for all departments and was extended for several months in 2018. The resolution was passed in reaction to the county’s financial crisis and the rejection of a 1-cent sales tax at the polls in August 2017 to deal with the finances.

Also, in January 2018, the Walker County Sheriff's Office and the Walker County Jail were trending together about $200,000 over budget for the year, although other departments were on track with spending. By March 2018, the General Fund was trending 4.5 percent over budget, or about $390,000. At the time, the Walker County Sheriff's Department posed the largest problem, trending an estimated $239,000 over budget for the year. 

By July 2018, the Sheriff's Office was trending $350,000 over for the year, and the commission imposed spending restraints through Sept. 30, the end of the last fiscal year. 

Figures released Monday by District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who has been involved closely with the budgeting process the past few years, show the General Fund was trending to have a balance of $572,559.87 at the end of the year. Davis said that would amount to having a full payroll payment plus half of another. 

He also released figures to show solid waste trending to have a $295,000 surplus. However, commissioners — who noted at the meeting a number of legal restrictions that have prevented them from using one set of funds or another to prop up other problem areas of their budgets —  were quick to point out  the solid waste fund must be used for solid waste needs and cannot be transferred out for other items such as roads.

Davis said a bill in the Alabama Legislature for five years would allow the funds to be transferred to the General Fund. 

Dickerson said next year the department will have a bigger budget because off of the department's equipment was paid off as of December with a $110,000 payment. 

District 4 Commissioner Stephen Aderholt talked about how the commission had worked to replace older equipment in recent years, and that it needed to continue to purchase one or two pieces of equipment at a time to keep it updated. 

"I agree," Chairman Jerry Bishop said. "But I would like to go another quarter before we go out there and make a huge (purchase) with a $260,000 garbage truck." Aderholt said he meant before the end of the year. 

Davis raised the idea of going another year or two out of garbage trucks, but Bishop said, "I would like to see it at the end of the year, maybe a new model front end loader which picks up the large dumpsters. But we have a 2004 model that is running. We're going to try to maintain it." He worried about going too fast to build debt in solid waste, which would lead to transfers from other parts of the budget. 

Davis noted before the commission switched to an automated system, solid waste was losing $450,000 a year, and had for 10 to 15 years. He said a number of actions in that department have resulted in dividends for taxpayers. He said he wants to get as much as he can out of trucks, provided that it does not increase maintenance costs. Aderholt said he is very encouraged at the figures. 

Bishop, who had experience in the trucking business, said it was a trucking business hauling garbage. 

"To me you need new equipment and used equipment together, and you can keep your maintenance costs down in a payment range, and then you are accomplishing something, and you can pay off your new stuff," he said. "They would like to have another new truck out there right now, but I don't see it." 

Davis noted that solid waste is not for profit. The surplus now is what it once was as a deficit, and through management and the commission, along with hard work, the situation has reversed itself, he said. 

"That is a prime example of government being run like a business," Davis said. 

Bishop said the solid waste surplus acts as a reserve now in case something major is in disrepair. "It would be great if we had it everywhere but we don't because we don't get the money we need," he said.  

No figures on the sheriff spending were released Monday. Dickerson said Tuesday that Sheriff Nick Smith, who took office last month, inherited some over spending. She said the debt in that area is not as bad as it has been and Smith is taking action to reduce overtime spending and work on the schedule. 

Earlier this month, Smith told the commission his office has spent 35.43 percent of the budget for the year, where he should be trending at 33 percent. A bigger problem is that he has about $24,225 in outstanding purchase orders that have not come in.

"When that comes in, I'm going to be trending about $60,000 behind budget," he said.

Smith said he wanted to allow investigators and sergeants to be put on salary to cut down on overtime, and is doing away with "on call" situations for investigators due to weekend staffing that can allow him to avoid it. 

At Monday's meeting, Dickerson said the county will likely continue budgeting to feed the prisoners at its current spending levels for the next six months, so that the county would be sure to have the revenue to cover that need until decisions are made. That amount would be for $232,000, and the county is averaging $7,900 a week to feed between 300 and 330 inmates. 

The county has looked at the sheriff to take over more over responsibility for the feeding program, but the Alabama Legislature is also looking at a bill when he comes back on March 5 to set new rules in how funds are spent. 

County officials have delayed taking action, also pointing that Smith is busy getting adjusted to office with a number of issues in front of him.