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Commission trims budget by $3.8 million
Employees spared salary cuts for now

COVINGTON - County commissioners agreed Tuesday night to cut spending by $3.8 million, delaying a decision on how to make up the remainder of a budget shortfall that could top $5 million.

The commission is hoping to find additional expenditures that can be cut without affecting employee salaries.

The $3.8 million reduction in spending was reached by asking department heads to slash their budgets by 20 percent. That still left a deficit of between $1 million and $1.2 million.

Commissioners were presented with three budget amendment options Tuesday night.

Option one would make up the remaining deficit with an 8-hour furlough for employees per pay period. The furlough would save the county an additional $889,847, bringing total savings to around $4.73 million when combined with the $3.8 million reduction in spending.

Option two would reduce employee salaries by 10 percent, resulting in a savings of $918,369, or a total of $4.76 million.

Option three proposed a two-phase solution, with phase one being implementation of the $3.8 million in spending cuts already proposed and delaying further action for another week to allow Chairman Kathy Morgan and Administrative Officer John Middleton to hold additional meetings with department heads in an effort to cut more expenses without affecting salaries.

The vote was 3-2 to go with the third option, with District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson and District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons opposing.

Discussions with the sheriff's office, fire service and 911 are still under way to determine how they can reduce spending without affecting services, according to Morgan.

"I think it's important, given the monumental task we have here, that we take every opportunity to look under every rock and stone to see if we can find any more money here," said District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz. An internal Web site has been established for county employees to e-mail their suggestions on how to reduce spending, she added.

But some commissioners said whatever happens this go-round, even deeper cuts should be expected for the 2010 fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing noted that current projections would have the county operating on a $42 million budget for fiscal year 2010. The fiscal year 2009 budget was set at $55.1 million, prior to Tuesday's budget amendment.

With about 65 percent of the budget made up of personnel costs, "it's extremely difficult to balance the budget without looking at services, without looking at people," he said.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming said whatever commissioners do will be "nothing but a Band-Aid fix."

"We could still be faced with the same decisions next week. Either way we go, it's not going to be pretty," he said.

Fleming said furloughs and the 10 percent salary cut are not off the table, though he added he worries a furlough would be a "logistical nightmare" for the human resources department.

If a 10 percent salary cut is implemented, both Fleming and Schulz said commissioners should take the cut as well.

Fleming said there are departments in the county that are not performing and are not producing revenue, even though they were set up to be self-supporting.

"We've got some low-hanging fruit and the low-hanging fruit needs to be cut ... The citizens of this county cannot be asked to continue to fund employees when there's not work for them to do," he said.

Morgan said the board will have a special called meeting next week to approve further reductions.

In other news, commissioners selected Mutual of Omaha as the county's new life insurance provider, a move they said would not impact employees' benefits but would save the county $18,855 per year for the next three years.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.