Local News

County budget still $6 million short

SEBRING - Despite tentatively cutting $183,000 Tuesday from Highlands County's fiscal year 2014 budget, county commissioners are still facing a $6 million shortfall. In a three-hour budget workshop, commissioners went through each department, asking each supervisor if they could whack a few thousand. "I don't see how we're going to balance this large of a gap without some really unpleasant decisions," Commissioner Don Elwell said. No decisions were made, but one proposal on the firing line was a cost of living adjustment for county workers, who haven't seen a raise in five years.
"I'd like to see it stay in there for a while," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. "I'm not saying it will stay, but I'd like to see if we can balance around it." Commissioner Ron Handley agreed, but suggested every department head be required to take back 10 percent of their proposed budget increase. His suggestion was implemented in a few departments. The most drastic proposed cut was to the county attorney's budget. "This is one I think we need to look seriously at making a change," Brooks said. "We could hire a staff attorney. Not that I have a problem with Mr. Macbeth, but we can save $75,000 here." "Not to mention the full-time access to an attorney," Handley agreed. Macbeth contracts at $189 per hour to provide legal services for the county. His daughter, attorney Elizabeth Lenihan, bills at $126 per hour. In the 2014 budget, Macbeth proposes $191.84 per hour for himself, Lenihan at $127.88. "We took a pretty good look at that a couple of years ago, before a couple of commissioners were on board," Elwell said. "At that time, it made a little more sense to stick with what we have now. But I'm inclined to look at the other models." Macbeth billed the county $273,000 in fiscal year 2011 and $349,000 in FY 2012. The commissioners adopted a $300,000 budget in FY 2013. Macbeth has budgeted $331,000 in FY 2014. "I asked Ross not to be here today so we could discuss this," said Vice Chair Greg Harris, who filled in for Chairman Jack Richie. At the least, Brooks said commissioners should ask Macbeth to cut $25,000 from his budget request. "It would reduce the number of hours," Senior Budget Manager Tim Mechling suggested. "I've got a feeling we could probably cut some of those hours if we limit who has access to him," Brooks said. "We talked about a gatekeeper thing," Harris turned to County Administrator June Fisher, "where have to go through you." Department heads complained they're down to bare bones. "We're hamstrung now," said Facilities Manager David Flowers. "We can't do projects." "A lot of departments have done that," Elwell said. "That's what happens when you have to go down several years in a row." Commissioners have been cutting the budget since 2009. What happened to the courthouse energy survey, Harris asked? "That was supposed to have been done by Snyder Electric," Flowers said, glancing at Macbeth's empty chair. "The lawyers couldn't agree on the right language. And that hurt, by the way. There was a tremendous savings we could have recognized from that. But it is what it is." Emergency Medical Services took a $25,000 cut. "This is always a tricky one too, because of the overtime on that. A few years ago, it was $1 million. In 2012, they almost eliminated it, but it's kinda creeping back up." Road and Bridge Supervisor Kyle Green was asked to cut $40,000. "I've never been able to prepare a budget one single year that was like the year before," Green said. Every year, his department has taken on a new projects - mowing, resurfacing, the asphalt plant and others. "We've not had not one single fiscal year that something did not change." County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete was asked to cut $4,000 cut from traffic operations. "We have gone over this with a fine comb," Gavarrete said. "But, okay." The budget included money for lobbying the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee. "We should do own lobbying, instead of paying," Brooks said. The commissioners also left two additional employees in place, a new hire in Animal Control and a replacement employee in Geographic Information Systems. "I would like to leave that position there for right now," Brooks said. "Animal Control could use it." The next budget workshop is scheduled for 9 a.m. on the second Tuesday in August, a week when a regular meeting isn't scheduled. The five constitutional officers will present their annual budgets. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828