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Financial outlook brightens

Heading into a new fiscal year, county administrator Brenda Petty said Wednesday she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the county’s current financial situation.

“There’s been a lot of negative talk about our situation, but if you look at our cash on hand now versus last year, we’ve made significant strides to get us back on our feet,” Petty said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic when looking at the numbers.”

It’s a different picture today than almost a year ago when commissioners met in November to discuss ways to cut expenditures to prevent a reduction in services and employee layoffs. Those items of discussion included selling or leasing the Covington Center Arena, Pt. A Park and the U.S. Department of Agriculture building.

In June, local businessman Don Bullard signed a five-year arena lease, and last week, the county signed an agreement to sublease Pt. A park.

“Those two things alone will save us $286,000 a year,” Petty said.

Other large savings generated were $15,000 by canceling employee uniform services and $35,000 by splitting the operation of EMA and E-911.

“Total that up and that’s $336,000,” she said. “Those big cuts immediately stopped the drain on the general fund. When you combine that with cutting budgets and department heads doing an excellent job of managing those budgets, you can see things now taking a good turn.

“What hurt us was that we lost $210,000 a year in revenue from the federal prisoner contract,” she said. “We had budgeted that revenue. That loss was a blow, so when you think about losing that much revenue, it just further shows what an exemplary job our department heads did.”

Bank records show the county’s Aug. 2008 general fund balance was at $6,131. As of Aug. 31, 2009, that balance was $79,738. The public highway and traffic fund (PHT) went from $56,634 in 2008 to $43,279 in 2009; the “3 R” fund, which finances resurfacing roads and maintaining bridges, has jumped from $438 in 2008 to $44,246 in 2009.

The biggest cash balance increase was in the FEMA account, which in 2008, was at zero.

“We’ve gotten a little more than half a million in,” Petty said of the Aug. 31, 2009, $561,395 balance.

Earlier this year, Petty said FEMA “would save the county” after rains in March and April caused more than $5 million in damages throughout the county. To date, the monies received are providing cash flow for the county, since FEMA pays 75 percent of the cost to repair the damages, in addition to rental fees for the use of county equipment.

“Cash in the bank is what makes things work,” she said. “Budgets are good, but when you’re cash strapped, the whole county is strapped. Last year, we could hardly keep our heads up. Now, like I said, we’re cautiously optimistic.

“These cuts we’ve made and really watching our money have helped us to survive,” she said.

Monday, the commission will hold its first workshop for the 2009-2010 fiscal year budget, and Petty said, there are no cost of living adjustments (COLA) projected in that budget.

“We have to keep on our current path of cost savings so that we can build the county’s funds back to the level they should be,” she said.

As the deadline approaches for converting the maintenance and operation of the county’s road system from a commissioner-controlled district system to an engineer-controlled unit system, Petty said records are showing commissioners have stayed within their budgets this year.

“We’re combining five departments into one, if you think about it,” she said, speaking of the four districts and the engineering department. “Other than the FEMA projects, they’ve stayed within their budget. Gravel and pipe costs are significantly over, but they have the revenue (from FEMA) to offset that.

“It’s not as bad out of line as I thought it would be,” she said. “I think when this is all over people are going to see an improvement not only in our books but also in our roads. I was worried we were going to have to cut services, that we were going to have to cut hours or take a pay cut, but we managed to avoid it.”