$32 million budget on the table

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

 

The preliminary tax ley increase looks scary in Houston County, but every effort will be made to curb the jump, said Houston County Commissioner Jack Miller.

The board set a nine percent net increase Sept. 11.

“I’d like to re-emphasize that last year we proposed about 12 percent and we ended up levying zero,” Miller said. “As dire as it sounds, we will work diligently to get that nine percent down.”

County Finance Director Carol Lapham sensed the board’s uncertainty and said, “We can’t continue to use little cuts here and there and use our fund balance.”

“In my head I know we do little band-aids, but in the long run we have to look at re-organizations in certain areas,” she added.

Sucking up a chunk of the levy is debt owed on the criminal justice center to the tune of $1.13 million in 2013.

“That is the lowest it will be for 27 years,” Lapham said.

“The way we did this… not only is the bond a real burden but the operation of the new building we’re finding is extremely costly. We’ve added people and we’re talking about adding more people,” Miller said.

Increasing the sting of debt is the fact that a few board members recently attended a walk-thru of the center, during which time the building was reported to have several minor problems, including, but not limited to, roof leaks; landscape bricks that are loose; failing compressor in the IT room; and doors that don’t fit.

“We have a multi million dollar building that has flaws,” Commissioner Steve Schuldt said.

Miller said most repairs are under warranty, but that “it’s kind of depressing.”

After the moment of lament, board members expressed their desire to seek more permanent budget fixes that may include some sort of service sharing in the future.

The board oversees a budget of approximately $32 million each year with almost $10.4 million of that going to salary and benefits.

In a semi-related matter, the board received information from Jordan Wilms, Economic Development Authority coordinator, on potential grants for the old jail.

Wilms said the State Historical Preservation Office has grants available up to $7,000 to hire a firm to execute a reuse study for the historic structure.

He said studies of the like can run anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 and that he’s researching options to lock in a more precise estimate on the cost for Houston County.

The deadline to apply for the grant is Oct. 5, and Wilms recommended applying for the grant before the deadline.

“You can always turn the money down,” Wilms said.

There are five stipulations with the grant. They include:

 

• The building is threatened, vacant or under used

 

• The building is listed or qualifies for the National Register of Historic places

 

• A unit of government has to own it

 

• The unit of government (sponsor) must provide funding (if cost exceeds the grant amount)

 

• The local sponsor must be willing to implement the plan

Miller expressed concern over the last stipulation. “What does that mean,” he questioned.

Wilms said he also needed clarification on that item when he first learned of the condition.

“The preservation office is looking for a good faith effort on any of the findings of the reuse study,” Wilms said.

The study will list two or three suggested uses of the building based on research. The county already knows that any attempt to transfer ownership will need to address a complicated and expensive HVAC issue.

“They don’t tie you to implementing the plan but want to see an effort in an attempt to implement it,” Wilms said.

“At any rate, I say we at least make a motion to apply for the grant,” Commissioner Steve Schuldt said, and the board voted accordingly.

 

Contact Emily Bialkowski at emily.bialkowski@ecm-inc.com.

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