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State of the County

When he was elected county commissioner, Les Boggs promised to give taxpayers a State of the County report — an informal but written summary of how Lawrence County is faring financially and what is being done to improve the outlook for the coming year.

His first report, released months after he took office in 2009, ranked the county’s financial picture as poor. Earlier this month the second State of the County report was released.

Boggs upgraded the county’s financial health from poor to fair — not out of the woods, but improving. Why? Expenses have been cut and long-overdue bills are being paid. Still, the county’s revenues are still lagging.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Boggs said. “Is it where we want to be. I don’t think so.”

Money coming in

Revenue streams — money coming into the county to pay the bills — decreased in 2009, thanks to a national recession that in turn affected both the state and local economies.

Local government funds, money from the state to counties, decreased by more than $200,000 in 2009. LGFs amounted to just over $1.1 million last year. Sales taxes decreased as well in 2009 as did interest income, money the county made on its investments. Sales tax revenues dropped by $111,000 while interest income fell by more than $350,000. Total general fund revenues dropped by nearly $500,000 in 2009, the report said.

In response, commissioners ordered all officeholders to cut their salaries line item by 15 percent, the one exception being sheriff’s office road patrol deputies.

“I think the taxpayers expected us to trim the fat and we’ve done that,” Boggs said. He praised other officeholders for their willingness not only to work with the commission to cut expenses but also to use outside revenue sources to make up the difference between what they needed and what they received from the general fund.

Commissioner Doug Malone said the 15 percent cut was in keeping with a several-years-long trend of trimming staff to make ends meet.

Malone recalled that at one time the courthouse had seven maintenance people. Now there are two full-timers and two part-timers. The emergency management agency now has a staff of one, whereas in the past three or four people were employed there.

“People don’t realize how much we have trimmed,” Malone said.

The county finished 2009 with an $836,000 carryover, the largest carryover in recent years.

Paying the bills

In spite of having less revenue, commissioners did manage to pay down a roughly $500,000 pile of outstanding debts, bills for everything from food service for the jail to courthouse utilities.

The payments caused the final tally on some expenditures, such as supplies, to balloon. Boggs said that was because outstanding bills that accrued in 2008 and 2009 were paid.

Boggs said while he does realize one-time monies such as profit from the sale of the EMS buildings did help the county’s bottom line in 2009, this was not the only reason the county finished the year with a larger-than-usual carryover and was able to pay its pile of debts.

He said hard work and willingness to cut the budget also factored in.

The report said the bills were paid down to $56,000 current within 30 days by the end of 2009. The report noted that, “The county saw a remarkable decrease in the number of vendors threatening to cut off products and/or services due to lack of timely payment.

Good news

There were a couple of other bright spots on the report. The amount the county paid for worker’s compensation continued a downward trend. Last year the county shelled out $157,531 for worker’s compensation. That is nearly $70,000 less than the county paid two years ago.

The cost of providing health insurance for county employees will decrease in 2010 thanks to a 3 percent discount negotiated by the commission and the county’s new insurance consultant.

Concerns

Boggs said in the report one of his greatest concerns in the coming years is the debt incurred from the new Union-Rome Sewer District. The new sewer plant’s total debt is $27.6 million.

While a federal earmark may provide $5 million toward that cost, the report said, “This debt appears to be a problem for which some creative answers should be sought.”

On the other hand, the sewer plant re-do is one of the few long-term debts the county has. Debt related to the general fund, the report said, is $4.1 million.

But that includes money borrowed for the new St. Mary’s medical facility that is borrowed in the name of the county but will not be paid back by the county.

“With the exception of the sewer district, we’re pretty small,” Boggs noted in his State of the County report.

Peering at the future

Boggs said he anticipates property taxes will remain constant but he is not sure whether local government fund monies will stay the same or decrease, as has been the case in the recent past.

As for trimming expenses, commissioners said they expect that will have to continue chipping away at costs. Malone said he hopes to save money by combining emergency dispatching entities.

A newly created 911 dispatching board will meet for the first time this week.

Malone also hopes economic development plans come to fruition, thus adding more jobs and tax dollars to the local economy.

“I think this commission has worked well together,” Boggs said. “We haven’t always agreed on everything but we have worked well together to get to the bottom of it.”