County Officials Meet for Budget Retreat

A group of Stephens County’s constitutional officers say they cannot cut their department’s budgets anymore.

Stephens County Tax Commissioner Dene Hicks, Sheriff Randy Shirley, Clerk of Court Tim Quick, and Probate Judge Glenda Ernest delivered that message at a county commission budget retreat Tuesday.

Following a budget retreat last month, Stephens County Administrator Phyllis Ayers said she went back to the county’s department heads and constitutional officers and asked them to cut an additional 2 to 7 percent, depending on the size of their department, on top of already proposed cuts in the budget.

However, Hicks said that it is not possible.

“There may be some departments that can cut $500 or $600 here and there, but there is not going to be the savings that you are looking for,” said Hicks.

The other constitutional officers in attendance echoed that.

Quick said that since the county implemented zero-based budgeting a few years ago, the fluff is gone from the budget.

“I say this is ten dollars, I need ten dollars,” said Quick of zero-based budgeting. “If I was asking for 50 dollars, I have been doing you all wrong these past few years.”

Shirley agrees and said that if a budget had fluff, Ayers would know and would cut it. Meanwhile, Ernest said that she has need for an additional part-time person to deal with an increased demand for gun permits and other responsibilities being placed on her office.

Stephens County Commission Chairman Stanley London said more responsibilities and unfunded mandates are something the whole county is dealing with.

“It is pretty hard to come up with a number in the four years that I have been involved, the unfundated mandates that have rolled down to us, on top of the decrease in the digest, the economy,” said London. “People do not understand that every time the state whistles that it has lowered its budget … it went down to us.”

Another major expense draining the county’s budget is payment of the debt owed from constructing the new jail. Stephens County must spend well over $400,000 in Fiscal Year 2014 on jail debt payments.

County Commissioner Dennis Bell said it needs to be made clear that debt is not the fault of the current commission or Sheriff Shirley.

“This man is getting scrutinized because they think he is the one that built the jail,” said Bell of Shirley. “He did not build the jail. He was not even elected when this jail was built. If this jail had been built on time, they would not have the problem with this bill.”

Those increased costs are combining with a decreasing tax digest to create the county’s budget crunch.

The current draft budget does not call for a millage rate increase.

However, Hicks said that by leaving the millage rate the same as property values decrease, the county is collecting less money.

“For instance with my property, as my value decreases and my millage rate stays the same, my tax bill is cheaper,” said Hicks. “If the millage had been rolled up, it would have been about the same.”

According to Hicks, if the county had rolled up the millage rate simply to maintain the total amount of property tax revenue from four years ago as the digest decreased, the county would have had an additional $951,000 over the last four years.

London said he would not support any millage rate increase this year.

In addition, the constitutional officers also asked commissioners not to consider furlough days for employees, something Bell and Ayers said they were not in favor of doing.

After speaking with the constitutional officers, the commissioners in attendance continued to review the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

Ayers said she will take the information from the retreat and factor that in when putting together the proposed budget.

A first reading of the county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget is set for Tuesday.