published: Friday, August 16, 2013
Sheriff, others defend budgets
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - Highlands County commissioners again worked on their budget Tuesday. The session was highlighted by a number of problems with the sound system at the chambers, as well as several pointed exchanges with Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton, who questioned some of the projected budget figures, including estimations for the county's fund balance as well as expenditures listed in the general fund.
After explaining how overtime hours and compensated absences were listed in her budget and how increases in the Florida Retirement System (FRS) had impacted her budget, Benton said she had no place left to cut.
"We reduced salaries and wages - which are the big ticket items," she told the commission.
She said that any increases reflected in this year's spending plan were "absolutely necessary for the operations" of her department.
Commissioner Jim Brooks questioned the sheriff regarding pay raises within her department. Benton responded that there currently are 25 vacancies on her roster, with seven of those being unfunded.
Benton pointed to the 16 open positions as a reason for the number of overtime hours in the past year.
Determining pay raises at the Sheriff's Office was a bit more complex, with Benton explaining that under their business model, certain employees receive 4 percent pay hikes each year for the first decade. After that they accrue additional annual leave.
"That is for patrol deputies, law enforcement personnel, detention personnel and dispatchers," she said. "I don't consider that a raise, I consider that our business model."
Benton told the commission that neither captains and above, nor civilian employees, have received raises. This year they would be in line for a 3 percent increase.
Brooks responded that county commission employees had not received a raise in five years.
"Yes sir, but I am not responsible for yours," the sheriff said.
Benton said the projected raise was about $100,000 but being that they had under-projected retirement numbers by $350,000 she probably would not be able to provide the increases.
The sheriff told the commission that her budget represents a "24/7" operation, noting that other departments have an "8-5 Monday through Friday schedule."
"Quite frankly, if you took my budget, divided it by three, then compared it to somebody else's then maybe you would be comparing apples to apples," she said. "But the size and magnitude of what we have to cover is immense - comparatively. The only other folks you have that operate like that is EMS."
Benton said that any additional cuts in her budget would result in the "closing of zones" and the inability of her deputies to not "respond in a timely manner."
Highlands County Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said that although his budget this year was up more than 10 percent, the $270,000 increase could be attributed to just a few factors. That included a $160,000 expense for state-mandated aerial mapping of the county in addition to increases in both health care and the Florida Retirement System (FRS).
"Most people don't know that your budget is not set by the county, but is established by the Florida Department of Revenue," said Highlands County Commission Chair Jack Richie.
McIntyre again suggested that the county's property values have leveled off and expressed cautious optimism that there might even be a "slight uptick" soon.
"This might be the last year we see this," he said, gesturing to a slide showing the county's decreasing tax revenue.
Newly elected Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg, who has the smallest budget of the constitutional officers, pointed out that although her budget was up $181,000 over last year, a comparable budget figure would be the 2009-2010 year, when preparations were being made for an election cycle.
That is only up by $3,900 over that cycle - despite a $27,000 increase in FRS mandates. Ogg said that statewide, supervisors of elections have a spending average of $15 per voter.
"Here in Highlands County we spend $14.36 per voter, so we are well within that range," she said.
While Highlands County Tax Collector Eric Zwayer's office is funded by fees and approved by the Florida Department of Revenue, he came to the commission meeting to discuss his operation.
The tax collector's office has taken on a number of new duties including the dispensing of birth certificates, the driver's license bureau and the upcoming collection of the Highlands County Tourist Tax. That has resulted in the addition of some new personnel and at least one new vehicle.
"Our office is complex - we basically are an outsource for a lot of state agencies on a local level," he said.
While the percent of the budget coming from tax commissions has dropped from 93 to 62 percent over the past five years, Zwayer said his office is looking for other ways to increase revenue and provide better customer service.
Clerk of the Courts Bob Germaine said while his projected budget was up just shy of 7 percent, he too outlined a myriad of new programs his department had taken on - telling commissioners that many had been "a steal" with recipients getting their money's worth and more.
For instance, the clerk's office has undertaken operation of the Law Library, plus the information technology operations for Emergency Medical Services, the Emergency Operations Center as well as many of the constitutional officers. Germaine noted the phone system as being particularly high maintenance, as well as another project slated for this year to replace all of the network cameras and phones.
"That's an area you could say you don't want to fund," Germaine said. "I think that would be a mistake. That $20,000 is very, very reasonable."
Another area was a pre-trial release program. The clerk said that was a $500,000 savings over what it would have cost to keep some arrestees in jail.
Also included in the clerk's budget is a salary adjustment set at $1,000 per employee. But, Germaine said, that wouldn't start until March
"However, if you are not going to give raises to your staff or other constitutional officers, I won't give it to my staff," he said, adding he would try to be a "team player" in making the budget work.
"I've got a great staff. We'll make it work one way or another," he said.
At the onset of the session, Tim Mechling of the Highlands County Office of Budget and Management pointed out numbers showing decreases in the projected property taxes, the local communication service tax and the half-cent state sales tax.
Commissioners will meet again Thursday to discuss all budget changes currently under recommendation. The budget hearings will be held next month on Sept. 5 and Sept. 17.
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