Tight budget worries county commission

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2003

All three Lawrence County Commissioner's agree on two things concerning this year's general fund budget: it's going to be skinny, and it may initially look a lot like last year's spending plan.

The commission is considering appropriating its 2002 budget in order to comply with state requirements that a spending plan be in place by the end of March. The budget won't take effect until July 1. This will give the commission a little more time to see how state budget cuts will affect them, and whether sales taxes will increase, decrease or stay the same.

The commission discussed finances at yesterday's weekly meeting, and will probably officially approve the budget at next week's meeting.

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"We probably won't give everyone what they want, but it's a starting point," Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

This year, the county will no doubt have less money to work with than it did last year. State officials may cut Local Government Fund monies to balance their own budget. The Local Government Fund is one of the top three sources of revenue for Lawrence County. Last year, Local Government Fund monies amounted to $1,336,581.32. That was nearly $60,000 less than the county was getting two years ago.

State cuts to local government programs is a continuing trend that local officials have had to contend with for years. Over the years, the state has also cut its contribution to the county's Indigent Defense Fund. The state now only reimburses the county for 30 percent of what it spends to provide legal resources to low-income people. Commissioners anticipate that this year will be no different.

In previous years, the state also has cut the amount of money it sends each county for operation of its disaster services agency. The state used to reimburse each county for half of its expenses.

"Now we're only getting $7,000 a year no matter what we spend," Patterson said. Patterson said there are few avenues open to the county to generate revenue. In addition to money the state passes along, the county gets its income from sales and property taxes. Lawrence County Deputy Auditor Chris Kline said sales taxes have remained the same over the last couple of years; property taxes have increased slightly.

Commissioners, last year, dipped into the half-cent sales tax to help balance the county's books. They've indicated they resort to that again.

The county's 2003 revenue will be $9,582,110. Adding that figure with a $947,039 carryover from 2002 means the county's general fund for the new year will be $10,529,149. County officeholders have requested $11,601,191 -- more than a million more than what the commission has to spend.

Commission President George Patterson said he hopes the commission can sit down with individual officeholders and explain how dire the situation is and get their help in keeping spending in line.

"We have to let them know what kind of dollars and cents we have to work with and there's no room for extra purchases," Patterson said. "We realize that every department thinks their department is most important. But we still have only so much to deal with.

I believe if we are very conservative with what we have, we can make it. But I think we need to add that we expect everyone to live within their means."