No warm fuzzies in county budget

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

 

It won’t give you that warm Christmas feeling when you get your 2013 tax bill and see Houston County had a nine percent hike. Even more, the county needs to trim $372,400 from the budget to keep the increase to nine percent.

The board has already met twice with department heads to see if any wiggle room was available, and another meeting was set for Monday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m.

Commissioner Jack Miller has asked Finance Director Carol Lapham to bring information and numbers on furlough options. Furlough is a temporary unpaid leave of employees for cost saving purposes. Lapham reported during a Dec. 6 Truth in Taxation meeting that in 2010 state aid amounted to 17 percent of the county’s levy; whereas state aid is only one percent in 2013.

The increases are hitting people hard, and almost a dozen residents attended the meeting to have their concerns heard.

Commissioner Tom Bjerke said the budget is getting to the point where services will need to be reduced in order to stay in the black. Bjerke also said across-the-board cuts won’t work because the state mandates certain services.

Resident Thor Kolle said the board needs to beat on the legislature’s door to fix the problem and not on county departments.

 

Labor agreement

In a related budget issue, the county board signed off on a labor agreement with MAPE (one of the counties unions) at their Dec. 11 meeting.

The agreement calls for a one percent increase Jan. 1, 2013; one percent increase April 1, 2013; one percent increase Jan. 1, 2014; and one-and-a-half percent increase July 1, 2014.

The board also signed a memorandum of understanding with AFSCME (another union) that includes former non-represented positions, including:

• 911 coordinator

• Economic development coordinator

• Fiscal officer

• Health educator

• Victim services coordinator

• WIC peer counselor coordinator; and

• Zoning administrator.

Lastly, the board adopted compensation guidelines – and the associated pay grids – for non-union employees. This action simply gives the board a tool to help  keep non-represented employees’ salaries on par with those that are represented. The guidelines are in no way a contract.

Human Services Director Tess Arrick-Kruger said the action helps “keep pay equitable across the county.”

 

Airport

Airport maintenance is a lingering necessity for the county, and previous discussions to extend the runway and/or install GPS-guided landing equipment have fallen into a void created by other budget priorities.

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said he is keenly aware of the needs versus wants. He said, “Pilots want to extend the runway and they want the GPS for better landing conditions, but we do have larger runways close by.”

“I’m not dead set against improving the airport – just not now,” Commissioner Steve Schuldt echoed.

In the meantime, the board agreed to pursue state bonding money to offset the cost of a two to three-inch runway overlay. The project is estimated to cost $633,000 with the county’s portion being $14,000. Pogodzinski said the overlay will extend the life of the runway about 20 years. Several steps will need to take place to get the project off the ground, including design, permitting and funding.

 

Unspent grant

Money doesn’t often dangle in limbo for Houston County, but the sheriff’s office has an emergency management preparedness grant worth approximately $15,000 to spend by year’s end. The money was originally going to be used to offset the emergency management director’s salary, but the county found out that is not allowed.

“There’s approximately $15,000 EMPG funds to supplement or increase spending for emergency management, such as equipment, but they don’t want it to be used as part of the emergency management director’s salary,” Chief Deputy Scott Yeiter told the board.

Yeiter said the money has to be spent by the end of the month or it has to be given back.

Commissioner Jack Miller said this is the kind of thing that creates reckless spending. He cited an example from another state where the county purchased water rescue equipment for a community that wasn’t situated anywhere near water.

Commissioner Teresa Walter agreed, saying she doesn’t want to see wasteful spending.

Yeiter said when this has happened in the past the sheriff’s department has stockpiled things like rubber gloves, respirators and radios. He said he’ll come up with a list of items and bring it back to the board for approval.

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