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County budget hearings a lesson in making lemonadePosted Friday, September 10, 2010, at 12:50 PM
County council members, from left, Ed Cullison, John Wilkes and Jim Oliphant carefully look over some of the budget proposals during hearings that were conducted this week at the courthouse in Bloomfield. (Greene County Daily World/Nick Schneider)
I left the courthouse impressed with the dedication of our elected public servants -- the Greene County Council -- and deep respect for the job they do with our tax dollars.
It's no secret money is tight, both at the local level and filtering down from Indianapolis.
We're smack dab in the middle of a recession and the revenue flow our county once realized is not what it used to be.
That directly translates to tight county budgets that dig deep and in years like the one we are facing it meant the county payroll number had to be lower.
Property tax revenues are down.
Gasoline tax monies are down.
Excise tax monies are down.
Even county option income tax monies are projected to be down in the coming year because jobs have been lost.
The county council is charged each September with going over the budget of every county office and department line item by line item. It looks for every penny that can be cut or reallocated to make more sense in helping to make the budget expenditures come close to lining up with the incoming revenue stream.
Every year this slow process requires cutting thousands and thousands of dollars from the budget projections, even from lean, bare-bones budgets that a lot of the departments submitted -- especially in the last two years.
It's never easy to cut jobs and for the rare occasion six personnel positions that were in the 2010 budget will not be funded in next year's budget.
The savings by the job cuts in the General Fund probably amounts to more than $150,000 when benefits are figured in.
The council put the word out early that no raises would be offered. They followed through with that promise.
They also decided that no new hires will be approved -- unless for essential county services like law enforcement or first responders.
Also, when a county employee leaves, either by retirement or other reasons, don't expect them to be replaced in the 2011 budget.
So, we are essentially in a hiring freeze.
When the budget hearings concluded the actual cuts made from the budget estimates turned in by the department heads amounted to $752,217.
That seems like a high number to slice, but i's actually lower than most years because the elected officials and department heads are consistently doing their jobs and made significant cuts before the budgets were ever submitted. This trimming-down process has been going on for a couple of years and has allowed the county to hold firm on not raising taxes.
Did they remove all of the 'fat' in the budgets? Probably not, but they did try to cull them down and make them financially manageable.
However, the day of tax increases may be coming sooner than we would like.
The cost to run county government, just like our own personal households, is going up.
When medical and health care costs go up, it affects county government.
When utility expenses rise, it chips into the coffer of money set aside to run county government.
When wages go up, it costs the county more money to provide the services that its residents expect.
Health insurance is a big drag on the county's budget.
The county's share of the health insurance plan amounts to more than $1 million a year. That's tough to come up with even in a year when the county budget is not stretched to the limits.
Officials tell me that the county's share of a family health insurance plan computes to about $12,000 for every employee on the plan.
Another problem with this and every budget is roads.
The maintenance and building of roads didn't get much help in the 2011 budget because of nose-diving gasoline tax revenues which fund the highway department.
A total of $368,530 was sliced from the County Highway, Local Road and Street, Cumulative Bridge and Wheel Tax funds.
That means there will be less actual roadwork done because there will be no money to buy rock, asphalt, or even gasoline for the highway trucks, graders and such.
It's a no-win situation for a small population, huge land mass county like ours. The fuel tax funding formula needs changed or our roads will continue to crumble away.
Listen up Indianapolis, Greene County needs more money to provide the basic services required of local government.
Somehow, some way rural and urban counties all need more money to operate.
We need more money for our roads.
We need more money to fight crime and prosecutor criminals.
We need more money to educate our children.
We need more money to provide programs for our youth and the elderly.
We need jobs.
We need more money to provide our citizens with the necessary services they deserve and expect.
Is the situation going to be better next year?
Time will tell, but my guess is the 2012 budget will also be tight, but thanks to some actions taken this year in culling down the payroll and related benefit package, the task faced by the county council might be a tad more pleasant.
For now, county officials are trying to make lemonade out of lemons and this year it was sure tough to add enough sugar to make it easy to swallow.
Nick is the assistant editor for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached by telephone at 847-4487 or 1-800-947-4487; by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages...
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