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County under spending freeze

Citing sagging sales tax figures and an increase in the jail inmate population that is eating up county resources, the Lawrence County Commission Thursday enacted a spending freeze for all county budgets that get dollars from the general fund.

In a letter to county officeholders, commissioners said they will not sign any purchase orders or then-and-now certificates for general fund monies “until further

notice.”

“In the past we have always found a little money here and there to make it through and this year we don’t foresee anything like that happening,” Commissioner Doug Malone said. “We just have to tighten our belts and do what we have to do. It is what it is, a spending freeze.”

In the letter, commissioners pointed out that half the money that goes into the general fund comes from the county’s sales tax. Because of the closure of the 17th Street Bridge from Chesapeake to Huntington, W.Va., one area store has reportedly experienced a drop in sales of 20 percent or more and the store is considering layoffs, the commissioners’ letter said.

Commissioners did not disclose which store in the letter or in their Thursday meeting.

Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline said sales taxes amount to approximately $4.1 million annually, fluctuating from month to month. Sales taxes collected by stores in the month of June — and actual figures on how much money was collected — won’t reach county coffers until August.

“It’s a tough situation and we want to be proactive,” Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

If the possibility of dwindling revenues was not enough to concern county leaders, the number of inmates at the Lawrence County jail added to it perhaps will.

The jail, built in the 1970s to house less than 60 inmates, is now housing as many as 80 a day, with still others being sent to jails in other counties as space is found. The county has 10 beds reserved in the Scioto County Jail but the number of people requiring incarceration often exceeds those 10 beds. More people in jail means more people the county must feed, house and even medicate daily.

If the inmate can’t afford an attorney, the cost to hire one to defend him or her in court is also born by the county. A large number of those going through the court system do ask for a court-appointed attorney.

Money to operate the court system, prosecutor’s office, sheriff’s office and adult probation agency are also paid for through general fund monies. More people committing crimes and going through the court system creates an even bigger drain on county resources.

Stephens said the spending freeze is but one measure county commissioners have taken to stretch its budget to cover essentials.

Earlier this year Don Mootz retired as Lawrence County 911/Emergency Management Agency director. Instead of hiring someone to replace him, commissioners opted to split his duties between two people who were already on the county payroll: Lonnie Best and Mike Boster. Two positions in the EMA office were eliminated and one vacant position at the 911 center was not filled.

The spending freeze, he said, was another step toward bringing county spending inline with county revenue.