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County OKs budget; eyes state funds

It is approved and in place, but it is nobody's idea of a dream document.

The Lawrence County Commission Thursday approved a permanent budget for 2005. A tight spending plan already, commissioners worry that it could get worse if state officials cut funding to local governments as they try to balance their own budget later this year.

And at least one officeholder is not happy with her office's allotment and hopes commissioners will reconsider her request for more money.

The new spending plan looks a lot like last year's budget and, in fact, the year before that. The $10.84 million budget is slightly above last year's $10.62 plan. Expected revenues only total $10 million, approximately $385,000 more than what was certified for last year, but still more than $600,000 less than bedgeted expenses.

The difference will come from the 2004 carryover of $674,111 and one-time funding of $168,183.

Very conservative estimates show that the county general fund should end the year with $885.

But Commissioner Jason Stephens warned that that figure is, in all likelihood, extremely low. In previous years, budgets have also had tiny projected surpluses, and in reality, at the end of the year, the county posted carryovers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last year's budget, for instance, projected a carryover of $1,965 instead of the

$674,111 the general fund showed in December.

While some offices will get more money than last year, appropriations are still less than what many officeholders requested. Commissioners said they expect officeholders to hold the line on spending to keep from running short on funds later on.

'There are no county credit cards," Commissioner Doug Malone said. "…When you get your budget you've got to live within it. Don't come to us nine months from now and ask for more."

Though not on the agenda, Lawrence County Board of Elections Director Mary Wipert hand-delivered a letter to the commission in which the elections board objected to that office's appropriations for the coming fiscal year.

The Board of Elections had requested $323,000. Commissioners appropriated $272,460.75- a difference of more than $73,000.

"We know the county is in a bind, but we're not an office that wastes money," Wipert said.

Wipert said state and federal mandates require her office to purchase new equipment and then train staff and poll workers to use this new equipment. For instance, a new system that will allow nearly instant updates on voter registration between the local offices in all Ohio counties and the Ohio Secretary of State's Office costs $20,500, and must be paid for with county funds.

"They've always been very cooperative with us in the past, but we just wanted to put this in writing," Wipert said. "When they say 'live within your budget,' well we can't live with this."

Meanwhile, commissioners are concerned about talk in Columbus of reducing state contributions to local governments.

In 2000,

Lawrence County got a little more than $1 million from the state's Local Government Fund. That amount has decreased to the $994,000 commissioners are expecting this year. It is money local leaders depend on to make ends meet.

"You talk about devastation to the counties," Commission President George Patterson said. "It would be unreal. … They've got a rope around our neck and they're ready to go ahead and strangle us."

"That is our No. 3 revenue source," Stephens said.

Local leaders plan to discuss proposed state cuts in local government funding at a County Commissioners Association of Ohio meeting Feb. 7 in Waverly.