At a called meeting Friday night, the Upson County Board of Commissioners passed the 2014 county budget for a total of $14,512,548. Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston noted there had been over one million dollars cut from what was requested by departments. He continued stating the reason many of the departments looked like there was an increase is due to the items of health insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, and retirement being placed in each department instead of being listed as one line item as in years past.
“We’ve broken it down so we can keep track of what it costs to operate each department,” said Blackston when asked why the county chose to do this. “To give us a little bit better accountability and transparency, so people would know what it takes to operate each department in the county; and to give us a little better tracking ability also.”
In addition to each department appearing to have an increase; the overall county budget has gone up from $13,815,815 in 2013 to $14,512,548 for 2014. Blackston stated nearly 43 percent of the budget is out of the county’s control because that percentage is what is made up by the constitutional officers, who legally have control over what their budgets will be set at. Blackston noted however each of the constitutional officers has worked well with the board and tries to keep costs down.
The board held two public hearings on the budget Friday also, with several citizens turning out to voice their thoughts and concerns. One citizen, Danny Hunter, had several questions about the increase in the budget of the Senior Center, which went from $44,850 to $363,398; one being why the food supplies budget was $211,000. Hunter noted when that amount is divided out; it equals roughly $18,354 per month and asked if the county had looked into contracting out the meals for a cheaper rate.
Blackston stated in addition to the placing of insurance and retirement in the department, the reason there was such a large increase was due to many line items, such as salaries, not being placed in the Senior Center budget last year. He noted there were some accounting problems last year. As for the cost of the food supplies, for the month of December alone 1,280 meals were served in house; 1,140 home delivered meals were served; 1,046 meals were served to Butts County (which is fully reimbursed to the county); 1,137 meals were served to Lamar County (which is fully reimbursed to the county) and 101 Alzheimer’s clients were served. The board had looked to see if contracting the food service out would be cheaper, but what they found was that the less than a dollar difference it would be would not make up for the lack of quality food the seniors are getting now.
Blackston continued stating Donna Auth, who serves as the Director of the Senior Center, also applies for as many grants as possible to help with funding, as well as taking in any donations that come her way. He commended her for doing such a good job.
Another question that came up was about the creation of a Code Enforcement Officer for the county. Blackston stated the codes have not been enforced in the county and there have been several complaints by citizens about abandoned homes throughout the area. He noted the new officer, which the county hopes to begin advertising for in early 2014, will be in charge of monitoring and enforcing the county’s codes. The board has designated $63,000 for that department, which Blackston said is a package deal and includes everything from salary, to insurance and supplies. The position’s salary is around $35,000 a year.
Two other departments that seemed to go up a large amount this year are the Registrar and the Road Department. The board noted the Registrar’s budget went up due to 2014 being an election year. There are several state and federal elections to be held next year in addition to the usual city and county elections. Blackston also stated there have been some changes in the legislature and there now has to be separate elections for Congress and Senators in the Primaries; no county elections can be held on those days like they were in the past.
As for the Road Department, County Manager Jim Wheeless stated that nearly $380,000 of the budget comes from an LMIG (Local Maintenance Improvement Grant), which has been used to pave 10 roads in the past year. He noted the rainy weather kept the department from being able to pave any more, but there are plans to pave more in 2014.
One large decrease that was seen in this year’s budget came in the department of Ambulance and Public Health, due to the change in the ambulance service contract of $316,000. Blackston stated he and the board had tried to negotiate with URMC officials, but were told they were standing firm on their contract proposal.
“When I came on this board four years ago, we were in the mid $450,000 - $460,000, somewhere in that area. The contract there were asking for this year has gone up all the way to $616,000,” said Blackston who noted he and the board felt that was a tremendous amount. He also reiterated that the county does not own, operate or manage the ambulance service, they only contract with them.
Overall the board, along with Wheeless, County Finance Officer Wayne Sandefur, and department heads have worked on the budget since June of this year to try to get costs down as much as possible. Blackston stated there could be a possibility of employee furloughs this year, but they are hoping there will not have to be any. At the most there would be four, which save the county roughly $20,000 a day; something that could be beneficial to build up the reserves, which currently is only about $325,000. To run the county each month, it costs about $900,000. However, Blackston hopes not one furlough day will need to be used.
This is the first budget process that Commissioners Lorenzo Wilder and Ralph Ellington have participated in and both stated it was an eye-opening experience. They noted they had no idea how much work went into preparing the budget each year. Chairman Blackston stated it was not an easy task having to cut over a million dollars out of the proposed amount.
“Lots of lost night’s sleep, lots of sweat, lots of stomach aches, but the board came together and the department heads worked quite well with the manager. We all know that we have declining revenues; we all know our tax digest is down. And we just cannot continue seeing taxing the hard working people in support of the county, so we are trying to lower the cost of our operations.”
Community member Pat Hayes spoke to the board during the meeting and thanked them for their efforts on the 2014 budget. She noted she had sat through all of the budget work sessions and she saw the hard work each of them put in.
“I saw the looks on your faces when you had to cut the budgets,” said Hayes. “It was very time consuming and I appreciate your work.”