Debt looms large over budget talks
by Jennifer Cohron
Aug 13, 2013 | 1458 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The elephant in the room at the Walker County Commission’s budget work session on Monday was an expensive one — an 11-year-old, $27 million debt that will come due in 2018.

“We didn’t create this problem, but we’ve been elected and hired by 70,000 folks to solve it,” District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said.

In 2002, commissioners agreed to pay back $27.2 million on a $9.5 million loan that was spent on basic operating expenses and on projects in each of the four districts.

The current administration approved a refinance earlier this year that is expected to save the county nearly $4 million on the loan.

However, the commission must still find room in the budget to make a $1.2 million payment in 2018 and for 14 years thereafter.

The county currently has only enough money set aside to make two payments.

District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt urged his colleagues to establish clear-cut goals for their first budget. He recommended that it be balanced and have some saving built in while also directly addressing how to tackle the debt.

“I think it would be in our best interest as a county commission to use the taxpayers’ dollars wisely by creating a plan in this 2014 budget to be able to deal with that payment in 2018,” Aderholt said.

Davis warned the department heads that some tough decisions would have to be made now in order to prevent crippling budget cuts in four years if nothing is done.

“It’s a challenge, but if we can’t do it, we’re headed for a cliff in 2018,” Davis said.

District Two Commissioner Dan Wright said the previous administration set aside more than $2.7 million from bingo proceeds and other sources to help cover some debt payments.

However, the money has also been used for the past two years to help balance the budget on paper, and the county could have to dip into it to cover any deficits in future fiscal years.

Davis said that after crunching the numbers, he expects a four percent adjustment will be required across the board beginning with the 2014 budget.

“If we sit back and let 2018 hit, and you start doing 12 percent or 15 percent cuts in areas that we can cut, that’s massive, and our county employees deserve better than that,” Davis said.

Wright asked his fellow commissioners to also keep county employees in mind as various agencies come before them requesting funding.

“These $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 add up. Our departments would be struggling, and we’d be up here giving money away to every organization that wants it,” Wright said.

Davis said the only group currently set to receive an increase next year is the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, and Wright clarified that his comments were not directed at the agency.

Aderholt reiterated the need for establishing priorities.

“Money is not going to magically appear for any of us. We’re talking about getting ready for 2018 and $1.2 million. You can take $10 million and cut it a thousand different ways, but $1.2 million has to come out of it somewhere,” he said.

For 2013, the previous commission approved a $22 million budget, approximately $10 million of which was for the General Fund.

The commission set another work session for Tuesday, Aug. 27 at 4 p.m. to begin meeting with department heads about the budget.