Budget fix takes a beating

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

It’s nothing we haven’t heard before: state funding has declined, employee compensation packages are growing difficult to afford and we don’t want to increase taxes on those who are struggling with a fixed income. All these ideas were expressed during the Dec. 26 Houston County Board meeting where a $10,473,779 levy was passed for 2013, representing a 6 percent increase over year prior or $592,855.

It is important to note that this particular budgeting cycle has been aided by the county’s general fund to the tune of $211,348, a tactic that was used last year and not recommended by the county’s finance director.

“We need to be more fiscally responsible,” Carol Lapham, finance director, warned.

“I have no doubt that each department presents what they feel they need. You need to look at how maybe you can redo the way we are providing the services we have to provide so you can eliminate staff,” she said.

Lapham also recommended that the board continue to look for revenue sources and reductions so by the end of 2013 the $211,348 isn’t used.

“In 2012 you used $300,000 from the fund balance; that adds up quicker than you think,” Lapham said.

Everyone in the room agreed that employees of the county work hard and deserve recognition, but the simple fact is the money isn’t available to continue on the path the board has selected without continually raising taxes.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski was quite vocal about his displeasure with the 2013 budget. He said  tougher decisions should have been made.

“We’re eating our own hand,” Zmyewski said. “I still think we could have looked at personnel issues. I hate to go forward and say we’ll look at this later. We still haven’t solved the problem. It’s next year I’m really concerned about.”

Jack Miller, outgoing commissioner and board chair, tried to instill a few parting thoughts. He said, “The obvious impact of our justice center is paramount and highly evident. The time to debate that is long gone. We have it, and we have to deal with it. I’m still of the opinion that we could have done some tougher things, but I hope that in this next year that, per Carol’s suggestion, the board keeps looking for places where cuts could be made.”

Hindsight is always 20/20 and Commissioner Teresa Walter said the board should have raised taxes in 2012 instead of dipping into the general fund by $300,000.

Zmyewski countered by saying, “I can’t just go to taxpayers and say give us more. I don’t think levying to get out of a mistake you made is the best way to get out of it.”

The conversation continued in intensity.

“Department heads are paid a lot to stay within their budget. There is a management issue; the mentality is if we run over we’ll just ask for more,” Zmyewski said.

Commissioner Tom Bjerke, another outgoing board member, said now was not the time to address the issue but admitted that, “Yes, personnel is our biggest expense.”

Miller offered a little more food for thought. “We do not have to make a profit but we should not be taxing people for things we should be controlling.”

The levy and its 6 percent increase passed 4 to 1 with objection from Zmyewski. Using $211,348 from the general fund garnered a unanimous vote.