County memo: cut budgets 2%

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 15, 2009

Covington County Commission Chairman Lynn Sasser yesterday sent a memo to all county department heads asking that each one prepare a plan for cutting his or her budget by 2 percent of the fiscal year total. The budget year began in October.

“We need to have hide about yea thick when we do this,” Sasser told commissioners in a workshop meeting Wednesday morning.

“Some departments might not be happy,” he said. “The problem is, we can’t help it.”

The department heads’ recommendations are due on Jan. 20, he said, adding that the memo was sent with a budget comparison showing how much of their budgets they have spent through Dec. 31, 2008.

Sasser’s announcement came at the end of a more than two-hour long meeting in which commissioners reviewed a laundry list of potential ways to save money. County administrator Brenda Petty prepared the list at the commissioners’ request.

Before commissioners began reviewing the list, Commissioner David Ellis told the commission that changes must be made.

“The administrator came to me and said we’re going to run out of money in March and we can’t pay our equipment note,” Ellis said. “We can’t continue losing money every year like we have for the last 12 years. We’ve got to change some of the ways we’re doing stuff.”

Items put on the table ranged from charging to bury dead cows to selling more than 60 acres of property behind the Kiwanis Center where the county had planned at one time to build ball fields in a joint venture with the City of Andalusia.

But two and a half hours later, the only thing commissioners had hit upon that everyone was willing to change was requiring all employees who choose to use a county-provided SouthernLinc for cell phone service to pay for that service through payroll deduction.

Petty reviewed recent revenue reductions and said that cutting the entire county operating budget by 2 percent should generate $400,000, which she believes will give the county the funds it needs to balance the budget.

While the loss of a contract to house federal prisoners will cost the county $320,000 per year, Petty said the county had already billed and been paid for housing inmates in October, November and December. The actual loss of revenue in the current budget will be $208,000 for housing and $5,000 for transporting prisoners, she estimated.

Wachovia Bank’s decision not to renew a $400,000 operating loan also will mean a net gain to cash flow, she said. The county owes $360,000 on the note, and had planned to reduce the principal this year.

“They are not renewing the note,” Petty said. “ This is what they’re doing to all customers who don’t have deposits with them. That’s an $80,000 improvement. If we get a $400,000 loan, and we budgeted an additional $40,000 reduction, that’s a net gain of $80,000 to the good of cash flow.”

Among the potential cost-saving measures discussed were:

Eliminating contingency items in the budget.

No longer sharing the cost of putting resource officers in area schools. The program originally was funded with grant money, but there is no longer grant money to pay for the service.

Requiring employees to pay a portion of their insurance coverage. At present, the county pays 100 percent of the employees’ insurance premiums.

Stop allowing employees to drive vehicles home, which was projected to save $5,00 per year.

Cancelling uniform rentals and instead providing work shirts to employees of the road department.

Cutting all out-of-state travel and some in-state travel, projected to save $32,000.

In a previous meeting, commissioners discussed the possibility of moving to a 35-hour work week. Ellis said in his district the proposed move would save the county about $24,284 a year and would cost employees from $59 to $100 a week.

Commissioner Bragg Carter said, “I’d rather cut a piece of equipment somewhere than cut employees. They’re hurting in this economy just like we are.”

Commissioner Harold Elmore said the district road departments have suffered more cuts than other departments.

“We can’t keep cutting districts,” Elmore said. “We are almost to the bone.”

Cutting districts totally and moving to a unit road system was the final item on the list, but Sasser ended the meeting before it was discussed.

“There’s one item I want to table for the time being,” Sasser said. “Let’s wait. Take it up a little bit later on.”

Previously, The Star-News has reported that in the fiscal year that ended in September, the Covington County Commission spent more than $300,000 over its revenues in its road departments, bringing the running total of road costs over revenues to $813,247 for the past several years.

Sasser said he hopes to receive the list of proposed cuts from department heads in a timely manner and to have a proposal ready for commissioners at the first meeting in February.

“We are asking them (the department heads) to do it,” he said. “We are humbly on our knees, asking them to help.”