Published 10:36 pm Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lawrence County Commissioners said Thursday they have managed to whittle down their stack of unpaid bills, thanks to an advance on their portion of the second-half property taxes.

With many of their debts to area vendors cleared or reduced to a 45-day wait for payment, attention will likely now focus on closing the gap in salaries for the county’s largest general fund office.

Writing checks

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Starting out with more than $550,000 in requests for payment a week ago, Commissioner Les Boggs said more than $268,000 in unpaid bills have been cleared away, leaving a little less than $200,000 in bills still left to pay.

“By the end of the year, I want to be even,” Boggs said. “When I started this year (as commissioner) they had a $150,000 carryover but $492,000 in unpaid bills. My goal is to be even (at the end of this year).”

Making payroll

Earlier this summer the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office released a list of offices that would run short of money for salaries before the end of the year.

While most offices, such as common pleas courts and the treasurer’s office, have regular outside sources of funding that can be used to close gaps, the sheriff’s office and prosecutor’s office were exceptions on that list.

But Boggs said a gap in the prosecutor’s office has been filled with monies from the recent series of delinquent tax sales, some of which, by state law, goes to the prosecutor’s office and some of which goes to the treasurer’s office.

“They made a transfer and they should be okay,” Boggs said.

That leaves the sheriff’s office, one of only two 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations paid for out of the county’s general fund (the other is the 911 center). Figures released in late July from the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office showed the sheriff will need an additional $193,923.98 to make payroll through the end of the year.

Lawless discussed his plight Tuesday with the Lawrence County Commission in hopes some money can be found to pay for salaries through the end of the year.

“Every day there is a new bill we’re struggling to pay,” Lawless said.

Five staffers who have left in the last year have not been replaced.

Lawless told the commission Tuesday another staffer, deputy Jeff Rood, resigned earlier this month. Lawless said he truly needs to replace Rood. He said working short staffed is beginning to take its toll not only in terms of overtime costs but also manpower burnout.

“I’m proud of our staff. They really go above and beyond, even though we’re in dire need of basic necessities such as bullet proof vests and uniforms,” Lawless said. “They’re overworked and overburdened and they still put forth 100 percent effort. They try their best.”

Lawless said he has approached other officeholders who have outside revenue streams to see if they can spare any money to help him make ends meet.

In 2004, then- Clerk of Courts Dale Burcham forwarded enough money from his title department to buy three new cruisers the sheriff’s office needed but couldn’t purchase on its own. But Lawless isn’t hopeful someone will be able to come to his rescue.

“Everyone is on such a tight budget now,” he said.

As is the case with other county offices, the sheriff’s office has endured budget cuts this year and in previous ones, although the commission has provided money in the past to make ends meet in the road deputies’ salary line item.

Making matters worse, an arbitrator ruled in favor of some sheriff’s employees in two grievances filed more than a year ago and awarded them, collectively, close to $200,000 in reimbursement.

The commission said money to pay the grievance award should come out of the sheriff’s budget but Boggs said he didn’t think it was fair to make the new sheriff pay for a grievance that occurred before he became sheriff and was filed against the commission as well as the sheriff’s office.

“I feel like we owe that amount and should pay that amount,” Boggs said.

Boggs said he feels comfortable helping Lawless because the sheriff has not wasted money and is trying to do more with less.

“If you see someone truly working hard, as Sheriff Lawless has, you don’t care to help them out a little,” Boggs said. “He’s working with less people and he’s cut everywhere he can.”

Come and talk

The county’s budgetary concerns have been front-page news throughout this year, not to mention in previous years, provoking comments on some Web sites about what the county commissioners should or should not do to balance their budget.

Boggs said people with concerns about the county’s finances are welcome to come to the Tuesday work sessions and discuss their worries. Those meetings are at 9:30 a.m. on the third floor of the courthouse.