Local News

Commission balances budget without tax increase

SEBRING - Highlands County commissioners finally covered their $6 million deficit in next year's budget, but their relationship with Sheriff Susan Benton got frosty at Tuesday evening's meeting. The deficit hole opened July 1 when County Administrator June Fisher notified commissioners that the fiscal year 2014 budget would be $6.4 million larger than the current year. All five constitutional officers also asked for more. However, property values had fallen, so had sales tax collections and other revenues, so commissioners began the annual trimming process: resign from chamber of commerce memberships, forgo raises for county employees, and ask the five constitutional officers to hold their requests to 1 percent more than last year. The property appraiser had asked for 11 percent more because of aerial mapping that was required by the state, while the supervisor of elections wanted 26 percent more because a gubernatorial election is required next year. The clerk of courts needed 7 percent more; the sheriff 4.6 percent.
As the meeting began, budget chief Tim Mechling said the commissioners still needed to cut $1,476,568 from their budget, raise revenues, or find a third solution. In the end, the commissioners chose the latter option, which was to keep $2.2 million less in reserves. Last week, Commissioner Don Elwell suggested the county and all five constitutional officers stick to a 1 percent increase from last year. Benton had asked for $1 million more than last year, a 4.5 percent increase. That would have sliced $800,000 off her 2014 request, and she responded by saying she'd just give back the responsibility of courthouse security to the county, as well as maintenance for the sheriff's office and other projects that the county is legally supposed to do. Her legal responsibility at the courthouse is limited to the judges and jurors, Benton said. "I don't want to come in here complaining, I want to offer solutions," Benton said, and then suggested the commission revise its policy of reserving the dollars for uncompensated leave that would be paid to workers. "We suggest that this practice is far too conservative and unnecessary," said Rob Reed, an accountant for the sheriff's office. "There is a great likelihood that not all of our employees are going to leave (at once)." "This has, historically, been accomplished with surplus funds. With shrinking budgets, this practice is no longer possible," Benton wrote in a letter to commissioners. "Currently, the Internal Service Fund holds approximately $4.8 million dollars." The commission policy is that the county and all five constitutional offices must agree unanimously whether to hold 100 percent of uncompensated absences in reserve, or none. Benton suggested that the board and constitutionals merely budget each year for the leave they anticipate will be paid out. That would lift the restriction on $4.8 million, which the county and the sheriff could use to balance their budgets. In the alternative, Benton suggested allowing the sheriff's office to "opt out of the fund and return the fund balance of $2.3 million to the board, who would then be responsible for keeping the Internal Service Fund fully funded." "We're on opposite sides of this," Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine objected. "We should stay 100 percent funded." If Highlands County discontinued the policy, he would have to send the $70,000 on the court side of his office to the state. On the county side of his office, he has another $170,000. "I sleep good at night knowing that if 15 of my employees resign tomorrow, I can pay them out," Germaine said. The federal government has the opposite policy. "And look where they're at." "If we did this," Commissioner Jim Brooks reasoned, "it's a one time Band-Aid." All the fixes to the 2014 budget are one-time fixes, he said. "There is no extra money in the budget," Chief Deputy Mark Schrader said. "We haven't filled some positions in several months... There isn't any fluff money or 'find the money.' It isn't there." Okeechobee County had to lay off 38 deputies, Schrader said. The sheriff's office called here to find out if Benton could hire some. Highlands County SO has not filled open 25 positions, Benton said. Since most of the sheriff's budget is spent on personnel, if the sheriff's office is required to cut $800,000 from its operating budget, Schrader said, "The cut for us will be manpower driven." As Benton's voice grew louder when she offered to give back duties to the county, Brooks suggested she wasn't helping solve the budget problem and wasn't being a team player. "You're not the only constitutional officer facing shortfalls," Brooks said drily, "and we would really appreciate your spirt of cooperation." Benton turned redder. Then Elwell called her hand, offering to move every item out of her budget that is not legally the sheriff's to perform. "Whatever we cut, we'll contract with you like you did with Avon Park," Elwell suggested. Last year, the city paid the sheriff's department to patrol streets. "What if I don't want to sign it?" Benton challenged. "Let's try to work together and find some answers," Elwell suggested. When comparing efficiencies, Benton suggested, "maybe you had a lot more fat in your budget than I did." "If we look at it historically, I think you would see what I am saying," Elwell explained. "I have, commissioner." "Would you like to see it again?" he asked. "No," she retorted. "If you were to sit and watch last week's meeting, I don't know who anybody would figure out it out. It was embarrassing." Watching her performance at this the meeting was no less embarrassing, Elwell countered. Minutes later, both sides cooled down and the commissioners became more conciliatory. "What can you do for us?" Elwell asked. "What can you absorb?" Benton said she would just take the whole $800,000 cut. "Wait." Elwell, who works at Alan Jay Automotive, paused to make joke. In car business lingo, he said, "You were minutes away from getting $225,000. You agreed to a higher car payment too soon." Although it meant the other four constitutional offices would be held to a 1 percent increase while the sheriff got 2.5 percent, the commissioners agreed to give the sheriff's office $550,000. Then County Administrator June Fisher offered the final budget key: hold the equivalent of 2.5 months in reserve for disasters instead of 3 percent. For a $120 million budget, that meant each week was worth about $2.3 million. "That seems the most logical to me," Fisher said. "If five hurricanes come through, we have the other options." "I don't see things changing greatly next year," Brooks disagreed. "I don't want to take it out of fund balance." Commissioner Ron Handley agreed with Brooks. Even if Highlands County raised its 7.1 mill rate, it would still be among the lowest rates in the state, he reasoned. However, they were outvoted 3-2. The final votes on the budget and the millage will be taken in September. After an hour-long discussion, commissioners granted Positive Medical Transport's certificate for ambulance transport service in the county. Dr. Thomas Leitzel and Brian Hess were appointed to the IDA-EDC board of directors. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828