Tribune-Courier News Editor
BENTON – Facing less dollars coming in to county accounts, County Judge Executive Mike Miller last week said he expects budget talks to have more cuts as leaders deal with rising operating costs. Miller said no department can be above the knife. County leaders are looking to shave between $1 to $2 million from the upcoming budget.
“I have to send Frankfort a balanced budget,” Miller said last week after a pair of budget workshops. “If I don’t send them a balanced budget, they’ll send it back. What we like to do is send our budget in by the first of May so the Department of Local Government can review it for form and classification. It doesn’t mean you can’t change it, but you have to stay in balance.”
Even as recently as 2008, the county’s budget was nearly 25 percent larger, around $18 million. With the trickle of federal grant dollars quickly disappearing, the county’s budget is expected to be nearly $13.8 million this upcoming year.
And while the county’s dollars coming from grants and municipal aid have begun to disappear, its funds generated from tax revenue have remained nearly static.
The county’s general fund levy has remained flat since 1999, with a rate of 10 real and 11.2 tangible. Marshall’s rate ranks in the bottom half of the state’s 120 counties (68th). Lee County (50 real and tangible) ranks the highest, with rates dropping off steadily past Larue County (10th highest with 19 real and 28.21 tangible).
During the workshops, commissioners Terry Anderson and Misti Drew said they would be opposed to a tax increase if it was proposed. The commissioners said taxpayers shoulder enough of a financial obligation when looking at the total tax burden including special taxing districts like the school board and refuse district.
Even if the county had been taking the .04 percent increase allowed annually by the state, Miller said it likely wouldn’t have kept pace with sharp increases in fringe benefit expenditures. Currently, salary and fringe benefits consume roughly 58 percent of the county’s budget. In retirement costs alone the county pays out approximately $150,000 per month.
Hazardous duty retirement also accounts for a sizable chunk of the county’s budget. Offered to law enforcement officers, the county pays additionally into retirement funds. The amount is determined by the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS) Board of Trustees. For 2013, that rate is 37.60 percent, more than double the amount law enforcement officers received in 2004 according to the Kentucky League of Cities. According to information provided by the KLC, employer contributions are in addition to salary costs and only pay for future retirement health care costs and pensions and does not cover any current benefits, such as health or dental insurance.
Treasurer Emily Martin said the county has approximately 200 employees. The largest divisions include the Sheriff’s Department with 32, and the road department and jail with approximately 25 to 30 employees each.
“The last thing I want to do is lay off,” Miller said. “These people have payments just like everybody else. In the future we may have to look at asking if anyone wants to take a voluntary lay-off.”
In recent years, the county has reduced its workforce through attrition. The road department has reduced its workforce by three full time employees and the parks department absorbed a position by combining job duties. Last week, Anderson suggested the county could reduce its special projects crew by one member if it transferred an employee to cover an opening at the parks department.
During budget workshops, Martin has stressed that even if the county is able to cover its budget shortfall, it still needs to build a surplus in to cover unexpected expenses.
“If we have no reserves and we spend that entire budget, that means next July 1, we will have no more cash in the bank,” Martin said. “If we’ve spent all the money by July 1, that means we won’t get any more money until tax bills come in during October or November. We wouldn’t have any money to pay anyone, we wouldn’t have any money to operate.”
Martin said in her talks with department leaders, county employees have been willing to look for areas to save.
“Even though we may not have many reserves, if any, budgeted, I felt like everyone was committed to try and save some throughout the year,” Martin said. “That would turn in to a carry over for the following year.
If the court is unable to pass a balanced budget by July 1, county offices will shut down. The County Clerk’s Office will remain open as it is a fee-based office. The fiscal court will hold a budget reading May 1.