County commission discusses financial difficulties to this point

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 9/22/17

Walker County Commissioners on Monday discussed the difficulties of the county’s current budget crisis as it prepares Tuesday to pass the Fiscal 2018 budget.

The commission held a budget hearing on Monday, during which commissioners looked at …

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County commission discusses financial difficulties to this point


Walker County Commissioners on Monday discussed the difficulties of the county’s current budget crisis as it prepares Tuesday to pass the Fiscal 2018 budget.

The commission held a budget hearing on Monday, during which commissioners looked at what it had done to this point and what people need to consider in what the current budget will mean for government operations.

The commission announced Wednesday it will hold a called meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to pass a new budget, as well as budget amendments and inmate medical agreements.

District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt looked to the past to note he and Distirct 1 Commissioner Keith Davis were proactive in working on the finances in the last commission term after they came to office in 2012, looking at the principal on debt that would start to come due in 2018. Aderholt said they worked on a plan to reduce the budget 4.5 percent a year for at least three years to cut nearly 14 percent overall. Davis also noted the debt was refinanced.

The first year’s cuts were made the first year and the prospect of cutting in the additional two years “was just too much for some departments to even consider,” Aderholt said, so they were not carried out.

The commission still implemented ways to streamline and cut, including a successful effort to “stop the bleeding in the General Fund that was going to supplement solid waste.” However, Aderholt said with a General Fund of nearly $10 million, he said it is hard to streamline and cut much more.

“We’ve done so many things in the past couple of years to try to get ahead of where we are, but the bottom line, this is where we are,” he said. “I wish there was a different way to do this, or a different set of numbers to look at. But it is like my household bank account. We hade to live within our means.” 

Davis also considered the jail payment, as he was hoping to balance the budget with that funding that became available, but he said the numbers are not there.

All the revenue that went for the jail payment is now going toward balancing the budget.

He said all the cuts, refinancing and streamlining done since about 2013 add up to nearly $8 million. “The argument that we sat here and didn’t do anything for five years is not a truthful argument,” Davis said.

Aderholt noted health insurance costs for the commission to pay has risen 50 percent between 2006 and 2014. Davis said the commission might find $100,000 to save in one area, for example, and health insurance might go up $150,000. The commission might not give raises, but they would absorb 80 percent of the insurance increase.

District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough said he sees where departments are already working understaffed.

“I don’t see the need to really micromanage each department,” he said. “They know what it takes to do their job. I just hope we can come to an agreement on what that amount of money is that they can do their job.”

Davis said Burrough had a good point, saying commissioners are not supposed to micromanage but to legally set a budget. “It is the department heads’ job to run their departments,” he said. “That is as simple as we can put it.”

He emphasized that the budgets being considered are projected numbers and unexpected things happen in life. When unexpected things happen that can affect the budget, the department heads can come to the commission and work out a solution by moving items in the budget.

“Circumstances happen,” he said. “This is a budget. This is an estimate of what our projected revenues are, and based on those projected revenues, we have to match that number with projected expenses. Things change every day, so I want to stress that.” 

Davis said he could not recall a situation where when a department head comes with a budget probem that the commission didn’t work with them to figure out a solution, and a solution was always found “with the good Lord helping us.” 

However, he added, “We can’t pass a budget based off maybes. We have to pass a budget based on what the projected revenues are.” 

Aderholt said there will be less services, and wait times and response times will be longer. He said more revenue would help, noting Walker County has the highest disability rate in the state.

“We have the least amount of people paying the least amount of property taxes of any county in the country,” he said, noting the commission’s budget recieves no sales taxes. Aderholt said he was proud of what the county has been able to do at the revenue level that exists now. He said people will understand the problem when they see how the roads deteriorate, saying that situation is coming quickly.

Davis said, “This plan just continues to keep the lights on.” He said the budget is a short-term fix and officials can continue to work on the problem in January.

He also called for officials to work together and limit in-fighting among themselves that frustrates Davis. “If you work together, you are going to get a lot more done than if everyone hires attorneys and we start litigating on what is adequte funding.” 

Sheriff Jim Underwood was accompanied by an attorney to the meeting.