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Facing deeper cuts

Last week, Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens announced he would present a county general fund budget that called for a 7.5 percent cut in all salaries line items. But after a week of tweaking, the cuts may wind up being closer to 10 percent.

The budget

Lawrence County’s proposed 2010 general fund appropriation is $13,096,177. This would be met by a carryover from 2009 of $635,000 and estimated revenues of $12,601,177. The 2009 carryover is largely generated by the one-time sale of county property.

Commissioners are challenged with the task of trying to make ends meet and serve all the county’s needs with less money and more demands for it.

“We’re in the black but it’s a tight budget,” Stephens said.

The Lawrence County general fund budget has been reduced by approximately 16 percent between 2007 and 2010 — more than $2.4 million.

Why? Revenues are on a downhill slide and have been for a couple of years. Interest income, local sales tax revenues and state funding, called Local Government Funds, are lagging behind previous years and commissioners anticipate no increases in these revenue streams next year.

Local government fund monies amounted to roughly $750,000 in 2009.

In the 1990s, annual LGF monies increased a couple hundred thousand a year and amounted to a million or more each year. After the turn of the century, the state froze its county allotments and then the LGFs began to slide downward.

Interest income, money the county earns by investing money even for short terms, amounted to approximately $700,000 in 2007.

When the economic crash hit last year that air was let out of the county investment balloon. For 2009, the county will earn practically nothing on its investments.

Commissioners are hopeful the county’s investments can rebound in 2010 and the county can make a couple hundred thousand dollars. But there is no guarantee.

Thus, the budget cuts.

The proposed budget, not yet adopted, would cut salaries line items for each office by 10 percent, with one exception: the salaries of sheriff’s office road deputies. Many offices will get no money for supplies next year.

“The thing about dealing with less money is, you’ve got to watch every penny,” Stephens said.

Budget cuts aren’t new. The commission has been enacting budget cuts since 2007 and with necessity. If they had not slashed the budget each year since 2007, they would be $4.6 million in the red at the end of next year.

“Mary Taylor (state auditor) would have been down visiting us.” Stephens said wryly. “But Lawrence County is better at it (making ends meet) than most. We’re used to being broke.”

How they will cope

Some offices, such as clerk of courts, common pleas courts and the prosecutor’s office, have outside sources of income they can use to supplement the amount the county gives them from the general fund.

Under the proposed 10 percent cut, the clerk of courts office will lose $14,141 next year in its salaries line item.

“We’ll be fine,” Lawrence County Clerk of Courts Michael Patterson said. “We’ll just have to move some money around and everything will be fine.”

But other offices don’t have the ability to draw on outside sources of income.

One of them is the recorder’s office.

Lawrence County Recorder Sharon Gossett Hager said she does not know yet how the 10 percent in her salaries line item will affect her office and its ability to serve the public. But she wishes she wasn’t required to take it.

If the commission enacts a 10 percent cut in her salaries line item, she will lose $10,750. The proposed budget would lop an additional $13,499 off her contract service line item and nearly $500 off her supplies.

When she met with commissioners for her budget hearing earlier this month, she volunteered to take a 5 percent cut.

Still, Hager said she has always lived within her budget and for the last two years, has come in under budget.

In 2008, she was under budget by $62,384.

This year she will end the year with $39,800 more in her budget than she will spend. She said one of the reasons she’s been able to come in under budget is, she has dipped into her state-required set aside funds to pay for some services the county general fund couldn’t cover.

Recorder’s offices are required by state law to have a set-aside fund for equipment and related expenses.

Hager said she has also reduced her staff the last two years in a row.

“I really can’t do with less (people),” Hager said. “I have the bare bones the way it is now.”

Hager said she has also managed to stay within her budget by making only those purchases that are absolutely necessary.

But eventually, things like computers and other necessities wear out and she will have to replace them and this requires money.

“I can see they��re trying to be equal, but I feel I’ve done more than my share,” Hager said.

Making changes

The proposed 2010 budget includes $75,000 in savings from combining the 911 and sheriff’s office dispatch operations.

Two weeks ago, Commissioner Doug Malone proposed creating a nine-member board to oversee the process.

“The goals and objectives would be to set policy and to operate it,” Malone said. He envisions a stand-alone (not operated under the sheriff’s office) entity that would handle all of the dispatching needs in the county.

Malone would like to have the board in place by mid-January. The commission is right now studying his plan.

Asking for help

The commission may opt in the future to ask voters for a little more help paying for essential services such as ambulances. A 2.5 mil levy would generate approximately $1.75 million annually, alleviating the strain on the general fund.

Stephens said the commission has always tried to make public safety, such as the sheriff’s office and ambulance service, a priority.

But with the continuing increase in crime and the continuing decrease in revenues, public safety is becoming harder and harder to afford on the county’s nickel. The commission is hoping the taxpayers will help.

“We can’t continue that commitment without a commitment from the people,” Stephens said.