County asks for ideas in saving funds

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 29, 2006

If you were asked how Lawrence County could save money, what ideas would you have?

Lawrence County Commissioners Thursday are asking just that: They called together county officeholders to discuss the dire nature of the county’s budget and to ask what ideas they had to cut expenses.

“This is not a ‘me’,” Lawrence County Commission President George Patterson said. “This is an ‘us’. Every one of us were elected to our jobs.”

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Some ideas, such as a proposed 3 mil levy, were nixed out of the starting gate.

Earlier this year, the auditor’s office sent the commission a list of offices that would run out of money in their salaries’ line items before the end of the year. Several offices were on the list, which totaled more than

$1.2 million.

Recently the commission asked the Lawrence County Budget Commission to provide an update on the state of the county’s finances. The budget commission consists of the Lawrence County Treasurer Stephen Dale Burcham, Lawrence County Auditor Ray T. Dutey and Lawrence County Prosecutor J.B. Collier, Jr. The budget commission this week sent a memo to the county commission stating that it could not “in clear conscience provide an increase in revenue certification.”

The budget commission did make several recommendations on how the county could save money, Among them:

4Cut all non-mandated expenses, such as the extension office, extra money to the dog and kennel fund and grants to community groups,

4Cut all county employees driving county cars to and from home on lunch breaks, etc., thus reducing fuel costs,

4Combine 911 and sheriff’s office dispatching to eliminate duplication of services,

4Charge the Lawrence County Educational Service Center a rental fee for use of third-floor office space.

Also, the budget commission suggested the commission may want to consider a 3 mill property tax levy that could generate $2 million extra dollars for county coffers. Such a levy, however, should have been certified to the Lawrence County Board of Elections by 4 p.m. Thursday to be placed on the November ballot, but wasn’t.

Also, the budget commission’s ideas drew ire, particularly the one regarding the extension office, which operates the county’s 4-H program.

“I won’t cut 4-H,” Lawrence County Commission President George Patterson said. “That will not happen on my vote. This is one of the most important things young people in this county have.”

Dutey, who is both an officeholder and a budget commission member, said he was not suggesting 4-H was not important and had always supported it, but rather this was one of the suggestions the budget commission gave for keeping other offices open.

Dutey also said he was not advocating a levy, but said the budget commission was asked if such a levy could provide additional funds and that entity was only providing information.

Patterson said he was in favor of combining dispatch systems, but only if the sheriff would hand over his operations to the Lawrence County 911/Emergency Management Agency.

Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton, however, pointed out that his dispatchers wear more than one hat: They enter warrants in computer systems, handle paperwork for the sheriff’s office and female dispatchers act as jail matrons for female prisoners. Doing away with his dispatchers would not save as much money as what some may think.

While commissioners acknowledged the sheriff’s office was underfunded and understaffed and said they would find a way to help Sexton with his money crunch, it was Sexton himself who proposed a solution.

He wants the county to provide money from its half-cent sales tax fund, which was enacted years ago to pay for emergency services.

Lawrence County Commissioner Doug Malone asked if the county would pursue acquiring $500,000 from unclaimed funds.

Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens acknowledged that much of the county’s problems are the result of state and federal mandates and the result of crime: A large chunk of the county’s general fund money goes to the offices that in some way deal with criminal activity: the sheriff’s office, the courts and the prosecutor’s office.

In perusing the county’s financial documents, Stephens said he noticed some offices have special accounts that have been allowed to accumulate, in some

cases, $100,000 or more and he wondered if those officeholders would be willing to hand back money they’ve squirreled away.

Commissioners presented a list of county offices and their staff and compared Lawrence County figures with those in other counties. Some officeholders said while they may have more people than some of their counterparts in neighboring counties, the volume of work they perform each year is greater than that performed in other counties so the comparison is unfair.

Lawrence County Clerk of Courts Les Boggs suggested that perhaps the county could save money by allowing some employees with 27 or more years seniority to retire early and essentially “buy out” their time, thus saving money on salaries.

He and other officeholders pointed to changes they made in their offices to save money and to find new sources of funds, such as grants.

“I think everyone is trying to live within their budget,” Lawrence County Juvenile Probate Judge David Payne said. “I think everyone is trying to make an effort.”