Budget Letters Spark Debate, Questions

Letters submitted to the Stephens County Commission by four county constitutional officers during the Fiscal Year 2015 budget process indicate that those constitutional officers would have sought litigation had the county commission cut their budgets any further.

Local resident Bryan Dooley questioned county commissioners about the letters at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

The letters were sent by Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley, Stephens County Tax Commissioner Dene Hicks, Stephens County Clerk of Court Tim Quick, and Stephens County Probate Judge Glenda Ernest.

Those letters indicated that if the county had cut their office’s budgets and not provide them what they needed to operate their offices, they would file suit to obtain what was necessary to run their offices as required by law.

Dooley said everyone needs to be in this together to make the best decisions for the whole county.

“If we have constitutional officers that are going to bring up letters that shows possible litigation to get what they want, why do we need commissioners?” asked Dooley. “Commissioners are supposed to be able to work the whole county, every department involved, and make an informed decision on what needs to be done.”

He went on to say he feels sending the letters was improper and asked commissioners if their vote on the budget was influenced by the letters.

Stephens County Attorney Brian Ranck said he advised commissioners of their legal requirement to provide the constitutional officers with a reasonable budget to run their offices.

County Commission Chairman Dean Scarborough said decisions were not made solely on legal threats or any other single thing.

“We looked at a total package picture of our budget,” said Scarborough. “It is not so simple as to say a decision was made based on any threat. The threat was we did not have enough money to run this government.”

Hicks, Shirley, Quick, and Ernest all say their letters were submitted with their proposed budgets in March.

They said their letters were a direct response to a January request from the county commission to submit a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 that included a six percent cut from the Fiscal Year 2014 approved budget.

Quick said he could not run his department if his budget were cut six percent.

“I have an obligation to the taxpayers to keep this office open and a six percent reduction would have effectively closed the office,” said Quick. “I was already two employees short at the time of the budget request and the only way to accomplish a six percent cut would be to cut workforce. There is no way I could do that.”

Quick said they are on a zero-based budget, which means there is nothing to give.

Ernest also said she could not have operated her office with a six percent cut.

She said she has one full-time and two part-time employees and a six percent cut would have had to come from her personnel.

“With the new health care laws, when that does go into effect and a part-time cannot work more than 29 hours,” said Ernest. “Without two part-time (employees), I would be in terrible shape. If I was in school, If I was sick, if the other one was sick, there would be no one there to operate.”

Hicks agreed, but said her issue was twofold.

According to Hicks, she has operated 2.5 employees for short for years and was told by the commission if she could find a new revenue source to fund it, she could request an increase in pay for her staff and it would be funded and she found a revenue source.

“The letters that all of us submitted were in response to the memo (that detailed the six percent budget cut request),” said Hicks. “Mine was a little bit different than theirs because I was coming off of the salary increases that I asked for against that new revenue source.”

Hicks said she collects a new commission related to the state’s new Title Ad Valorem Tax that totals an estimated $15,000 a year and in all, her budget increase for Fiscal Year 2015 is $7,519 more than Fiscal Year 2014.

Hicks said looking at the other Fiscal Year 2015 department budget, Quick’s shows an increase of $13,818, Ernest’s shows an increase of $6,573 and Shirley’s shows an increase of $303,133.

A significant part of the sheriff’s increase is the addition of four new deputy positions.

Shirley said those deputies are sorely needed.

“You call for a deputy and it takes 20 to 30 minutes to get there, I would be outraged and these people were,” said Shirley. “We had no choice.”

Shirley said a six percent budget cut in his office would have been impossible and impractical.

The four constitutional officers noted that other departments had to increase their budgets and say that no county department could find a six percent budget cut.

They also said that even without the increases in their budget, a millage rate increase would still be necessary to fund the county government.