CONYERS — The Rockdale County Board of Commissioners approved the first reading of a $58 million budget for 2014 Tuesday morning, while at the same time acknowledging that their budget work is not done.
Commissioners have been working to reduce the budget, originally proposed by Chairman Richard Oden at $59.4 million, for the past several weeks. Commissioners unanimously supported the first reading of the budget; the second reading is set for Dec. 10.
Included in the proposed budget is a plan to increase pay and compensation for the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office. Commissioners unanimously approved the plan in a separate motion; however, Oden stated that the BOC’s vote was only to adopt the pay and compensation plan, not necessarily to fund it. Should there be a budget shortfall, Oden said, Sheriff Eric Levett would have to come back before the BOC for additional funding.
“This plan does not say we are going to fund this position,” said Oden. “This plan says we are going to adopt this position.”
Post 1 Commissioner Oz Nesbitt noted that Levett is an elected constitutional officer and does not need the BOC’s approval for the pay plan. Nevertheless, he said it is clear that the BOC supports the pay plan and will fund it.
“We are the body that provides the funding, so clearly we are saying on record this morning that we’re supporting that. Come hell or high water we’re going to make it happen,” said Nesbitt.
Post 2 Commissioner JaNice Van Ness said she was disappointed in Oden’s comments.
“We have a clear opportunity to support our men and women at the sheriff’s department and not muddy the water with these comments,” she said.
Under questioning by Oden, Finance Director Roselyn Miller said projections indicate that there will not be a shortfall.
“The sheriff’s budget did not increase by the estimated projected cost of the plan,” she said. “However, the majority supports funding this plan in 2014 if there is a shortfall. But we feel that with the sheriff’s spending trend and how he manages his budget that there will be enough money, so we wouldn’t have to come back before the board for funding.”
The sheriff has previously said he intends to return about $1 million in departmental savings from 2013 to the county’s general fund in order to help fund the pay plan in 2014.
In total, Tuesday’s proposed budget includes cuts of about $1.3 million, including:
• Reducing the chairman’s merit-based pay increase plan for all other employees from $800,000 to $300,000;
• Removal of some 20 new positions from the chairman’s proposed budget at a savings of $850,000;
• Cutting the Finance Department contingency fund by $500,000.
While the budget will be tweaked over the next couple of weeks, Nesbitt said Tuesday afternoon he is generally satisfied with the spending plan and is confident that Miller will be able to work out any remaining “wrinkles.”
“We’ve got a unanimous vote on the first reading of the budget and we just need to attend that next meeting and vote and get it done and get it over with,” he said. “I think this has gone on long enough. It is time to take care of business at this point.”
Nesbitt also said he was impressed with the way Levett handled the process of getting the Sheriff’s Office pay plan through the sometimes-contentious budget process.
“The star player in this whole thing has been Sheriff Eric Levett,” said Nesbitt. “There were many occasions when the sheriff could have taken a different posture, he could have acted instead of responding to some of the comments by the chairman …. Sheriff Levett not one time did he allow that to cripple him or cause him to lose his focus in his quest to make sure he advocated on behalf of his department.”