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County … Feeling the SQUEEZE

Lawrence County officials lifted the lid on a spending freeze — a little —

but county leaders are still proceeding cautiously.

When it comes to the general fund budget and parceling out its lean fiscal resources, they know for certain how much money they will or will not have to carry out county government operations until the end of the year.

A clearer picture may be a few weeks away.

The pocket book

Lawrence County Commissioners issued a spending freeze in late June after determining the county is on track to wind up more than $400,000 out of financial kilter. Commissioner Jason Stephens said the spending freeze was issued because of a cash flow problem: Bills were coming in, but at the time, the second-half year real estate tax collections had not been certified and therefore could not be spent.

A large portion — roughly 75 percent — of the second-half year real estate tax collections was released earlier this month. As for the rest of the year, county leaders are waiting to see what happens when the remainder of the second half tax collections are certified, which should be within the next few weeks.

Stephens said county leaders will also be looking for other revenue sources outside the general fund — the half-cent sales tax and grants, for instance — that can be used to make ends meet. However, he said this is not likely to be a wellspring of income from any of these sources.

“I don’t know if there is enough money outside the general fund to put in to meet the demand,” Stephens said.

If the spending freeze was meant to be a short-term solution to the budget problem, another recent move was meant to provide a more long-term solution: The commissioners have asked the Ohio Auditor’s Office to conduct a performance audit to determine how county leaders could better use its financial resources.

Cuts

Lawrence County Recorder Sharon Gossett Hager took action to trim her budget before she even got the message from the commissioners about the budget freeze. When employee Madison Bowen left this summer to further her education, Hager opted to not fill that position, an estimated savings of $20,000 annually.

That leaves the recorder’s office with five employees where there had been six.

“Obviously we all have to pick up the slack and everyone has to work a little harder,” Hager said. “It is especially bad when someone is sick or on vacation. But we are still giving good service to the citizens of Lawrence County.”

Hager said while she has never had a problem balancing her individual budget, she said she was very cautious even before the freeze and has forgone projects she would like to have undertaken but had no money for.

Commissioner Stephens said other officeholders might have to look at staffing levels and make personnel cuts as well. The commissioners restructured the 911/EMA office earlier this year eliminating four positions.

Bills

Since the county lifted its spending freeze earlier this month, some of its outstanding debts have been paid.

Officials with the Lawrence County Auditor Ray T . Dutey’s Office told Lawrence County Commissioners to prioritize the invoices that needed to be paid, with the most essential services, such as utilities getting immediate attention. The spending freeze affected even the basics.

Within the last two months, the county has gotten at least three electricity shut-off notices. One was for the Dennis J. Boll Group and Shelter Home, one for Lawrence County Municipal Court and the most recent one for electricity at the Lawrence County Jail. Those and some other bills have been paid.

Other creditors are still waiting for payment.

Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said he understands the commission’s — and the county’s — plight, though he concedes, “It is frustrating at times.”

But he said he has managed to do the best he can operating a 24/7 department under the circumstances.

“I’ve had vendors call concerning a particular bill. Some of them have been local and some out of the area. But we will continue to do what we do,” Sexton said.

Philip Heald is a local attorney who represents indigent clients as part of his practice. He said he is aware of the county’s budget problems and this is something that affects him.

He said it has been several months since he has been paid for his services and the county owes him “quite a bit” of money.

“I have worked several months, as have all of us who accept court-appointed cases, not only out of the assurance we would be paid, but also because of our role in fulfilling a very important function as far as government and our rights as American citizens go,” Heald said. “We are all entitled to have an attorney and if we can’t afford an attorney, we have the right to have one appointed for us at the state’s expense. That’s part of our fundamental rights that goes back to the Bill of Rights that we all cherish and I want people to have that right.”

Heald has some company in the waiting line.

“There is a pile of them (bills for indigent attorney fees), we haven’t counted them to see how much is there,” Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline said. “Last year we spent $400,000 on indigent defense. This year they appropriated $160,000 and that’s pretty much all gone.”