COVINGTON -- It took seven budget work sessions, but the Board of Commissioners finally reached a consensus to adopt the rollback millage rate of 11.59 mills Thursday night.
Commissioners do not vote at work sessions. A date for a public hearing and vote has not been set.
Commissioners Lanier Sims, Nancy Schulz and Levie Maddox consented, while Commissioners John Douglas and J.C. Henderson dissented.
Four budget options were presented Thursday, two by Chairman Keith Ellis and two by County Manager John Middleton.
Both of Middleton's options were for adoption of the rollback, with a budget of $45,952,201. One funded Nelson Heights and Washington Street community centers at $40,000 each as requested by Henderson. The other funded the two centers at $32,000. Schulz supported the $32,000 option, while Sims and Maddox initially supported the $40,000 option. They agreed to transfer their support to the $32,000 option in order to reach a consensus, with the stipulation that the board revisit Nelson Heights funding in December.
Schulz said she did not support funding at $40,000 because Washington Street asked for only $36,000. While Washington Street does an excellent job, Schulz said, Nelson Heights is an unproven entity. Schulz said it's unethical for Henderson to be chairman of the Nelson Heights board of directors and request and vote on an appropriation for that entity.
Henderson asked Ellis to verify whether or not a conflict existed. Ellis said the attorney decided it was not a conflict for Henderson to be chair but he doesn't know if a decision was made on whether Henderson should recuse himself or abstain when voting on a financial decision. Henderson requested a written opinion from the attorney.
The consent budget would reduce the Recreation Commission's appropriation by $90,555, from $1,713,489 to $1,622,934. Increasing funding to Nelson Heights and Washington Street would have reduced the recreation budget by another $16,000. Schulz pointed out that the Recreation Commission serves the entire county, while those organizations serve a small portion of the population.
The consent budget includes an additional $30,000 appropriation to the Chamber of Commerce for economic development, increasing the county's appropriation to $150,500.
The Sheriff's Office budget will increase, though not as much as the sheriff requested. The sheriff initially requested an approximately $4 million increase, but will get about $440,000 more.
There is a spike to the solid waste budget of $750,000 due to required payment on a GEFA loan. The budget includes anticipated revenues from a user fee for recycling centers. A committee is expected to be formed and to meet during the next few months to address ways to increase solid waste revenue. That may or may not include the user fee, Ellis said. Henderson opposed all budgets presented because they included the user fee and said the public should have input first.
Ellis presented two options to keep the millage at the current 10.91 mills. He said constituents asked him to find a compromise and keep the millage rate the same. The first option was a 5 percent cut to departments and appropriations. Douglas was the only supporter. Middleton previously said a reduction in force would be required if the current millage is maintained. The second option required dipping into the fund balance. No commissioners supported that option. The fund balance affects a county's credit rating and ability to borrow. The fund balance is currently at about $6.6 million, or around 15 to 16 percent of the total budget. Commissioners were warned several years ago by auditors about the county's low fund balance and have worked to increase that, said Schulz. The recommended fund balance is between 15 and 22 percent of the total budget.
Schulz said dipping into the fund balance "is the most dangerous thing we can do to this county."
Also, with no contingency on the 10.91 millage budgets, "one tornado, one flood, we are done," she said. "We have choked ourselves to death. The problem with that is we may have saved perception of going with the millage rate, but we've killed ourselves and that's a really dangerous precedent and that's a dangerous road to go down."
The consent budget includes a $100,000 contingency.
"This board has done a magnificent job I think of coming to a consensus tonight," Ellis said. "It was rather difficult but ... it was the most important vote we'll be making this year. It affects 100,000 constituents. I know none of us are going to take that lightly."
After the meeting, Ellis thanked the county staff, especially Middleton and Finance Director Michelle Kelly, for their hard work.