Local News

County makes little progress

SEBRING - Knowing that a lot of their budget problems are due to unfunded mandates doesn't dig the Highlands County commissioners out of a $6 million hole, but it partially explains why they're in there. The amounts that Highlands County and the five constitutional officers must contribute to the Florida Retirement System have gone up by more than $1.1 million. Unfunded Medicaid mandates add another $400,000 to the total, said Senior Budget Manager Tim Mechling. Tax Collector Eric Zwayer was required to take over the driver's license bureau, which added two employees. It wasn't an unfunded mandate, but Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine voluntarily took over technical support for the county telephone system, information technology support for the tax collector and supervisor of elections, and the pre-trial release program from the sheriff. His employees will replace the video camera system, if the commissioners agree.
"It will handle all the cameras at the courthouse and the Emergency Operations Center," Germaine said. "It's going to be a major undertaking. If you don't want to fund it, we'll pull out, but it will be a mistake. I'm doing this for a very reasonable amount of money." But those new duties have also added $110,000 to his budget. Counting the FRS and $27,000 in raises he wants to give employees in March, Germaine is asking for an additional $224,000 in his 2013-14 budget. "That's a 6.98 percent increase," Germaine admitted. "But when we take over those programs, it costs money. I'm getting $20,000 for (taking over) the phone system, but I would say I've spent well over $30,000." "Pre-trial release costs $35,000," Germaine said. "You can cut that, but it would be a mistake." If those prisoners went back to jail instead of being monitored at home, it would cost Highlands County $500,000, he said. "But we're team players, so whatever you decide, we'll make it work, one way or another," Germaine said. "The problem is, we don't have enough money," Commission Chairman Jack Richie said. Due to falling revenues, the county will need an additional $6 million to meet expenses in fiscal year 2014. "We've got to figure it out." Tempers flared. When Benton asked questions as the meeting began, she was rebuffed by Richie and finally sat down. "It always seems like the sheriff takes all the money, and in reality we're just performing jobs for you," Benton said. Counties are charged with managing the jail, but most sheriffs have taken on those responsibilities. Later, during her budget presentation, Benton got hot again. "I'm so sorry you feel that way," Richie offered. "I'm offended you don't think we have the right to ask questions," Benton retorted. "Would you like to hear it differently from the chief deputy?" "No, just don't like to get combative," Richie said. All five of the constitutional officers have asked for budget increases this year: tax collector, $36,000, 2.4 percent; supervisor of elections, $182,000, 26 percent; property appraiser, $274,000, 11 percent; clerk of courts, $224,000, 7 percent; sheriff, $1 million, $4.6 percent. Constitutional officers spent one and a half hours on Tuesday explaining exactly why they needed the additional money: Every four years, the cost of the presidential and gubernatorial primaries add to the election supervisor's budget. "If we take into account the FRS, we are actually down from where we were four years ago," Elections Supervisor Penny Ogg said.The property appraiser is required by the state to pay for aerial mapping every three years.The sheriff was short 25 employees. "We're down 10 dispatchers. Do you know how exhausted those folks are?" She's paid out $632,000 in overtime because there aren't enough correctional officers in the jail.Asked if she raised the salaries of her employees, Benton replied that she didn't consider them raises. "I consider it our business model." Although the county commissioners were conducting budget hearings, state agencies actually set most of the budgets of constitutional officers. Commissioner Don Elwell ended the budget meeting by asking what if the commissioners and the five constitutional officers reduced their budgets by 2.53 percent? Mechling's answer: the property appraiser would lose $138,000; supervisor of elections, $60,000; sheriff's office, $1.6 million; clerk of courts, $305,000, tax collector, $73,000; county commission, $549,000. The total savings was about $2 million. "That doesn't take into account the additional responsibilities they've taken on," Richie protested. "It's a broad brush," Elwell agreed. "It is. You'd have to tweak every constitutional officer's budget for everything additional," Richie said. "So we'd still be $4 million short." Commissioner Jim Brooks pointed out. "Can I make one suggestion?" Germaine said. "If you cut my budget $300,000, you're going to get a lot of my programs back." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828