published: Friday, August 30, 2013
Sheriff, county agree on budget
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING -- In a tense, back-and-forth negotiation that lasted nearly two hours, Highlands County Commissioners Tuesday night struck a budget deal with Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton. As written, the accord will give the sheriff's office an additional $550,000 over last year's budget. It also represented a nearly half-million-dollar reduction from the sheriff's original request.
Commissioners also voted to keep this year's millage at the current 7.1 rate, deciding instead to use a portion of the county's rainy day fund to bridge the gap between revenue and spending.
The margin of victory was slim, with Jim Brooks and Ron Handley voting to raise property taxes and Don Elwell, Greg Harris and chairman Jack Richie voting no, opting instead to use the fund balance money as a solution for the upcoming year.
In a special budget meeting last week, commissioners had reduced the request of the sheriff's office by more than $809,000. They utilized a formula for all constitutional officers that would provide a 1 percent raise over a previous comparable year. That would have given the sheriff's office some $224,000 more than it had in this current fiscal year's budget.
"The way it stands today, with the board's budget recommendations, we will not be able to meet our financial obligations," Benton told commissioners.
Looking for a way to find money in the current county coffers, Benton brought the commission a suggestion that would have taken money from the compensated absences fund. Such a tactic would have infused more than $4 million into the current budget pool.
However, the idea did not fly, as state mandates require that if there is such a fund, it must be funded at 100 percent of the outstanding liability. Moreover, all of the county's constitutional officers would have had to be on board with such a plan and at least two of them said they were not interested.
"This is a place where the sheriff and I are on opposite sides," said Highlands County Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine. "Usually we are on the same page, but not this time. We think the county should stay 100 percent funded."
Germaine said he previously had discussed the plan with Highlands County Tax Collector Eric Zwayer, who also declined to participate.
Benton objected to the cost-cutting formula imposed on constitutional officers, alleging that what she was left with would be insufficient funds to operate her department.
"I have the numbers now, and that would be a reduction of about $809,000, which would leave us a $224,000 increase over last year," she said.
Without that money, Benton said she would be forced to give a number of duties that her office currently handles for the board back to the county. That would include courthouse security, operation of the jail and allowing the county's facilities department to handle the care and maintenance of the sheriff's office buildings.
Elwell suggested that jobs performed by the sheriff for the board could be moved to the county commissioners' budget to better track the expenditures. He also suggested that although the board had made dramatic cuts in their budget in the recent past, by comparison, the sheriff's office had not reduced its budget as much.
"I have historic data that indicates over the last eight or nine years, the sheriff's office has not decreased their total budget to the same extent that the revenues have gone down," he said. "Conversely, the board has over cut compared to how the revenues have gone down in order to help absorb some of the deficits in other areas."
On several occasions, Benton told the board she did not understand the rationale behind the board's fiscal policy and how it was determined. The sheriff was not at last week's special meeting, and reportedly was out of state at the time.
Elwell explained that it has been a long-standing - though often ignored -- board policy to raise or lower budgets based on the available revenue. He stated that the time was overdue to adhere to that policy.
Benton responded that her office has fixed costs, pointing to the jail and saying that there are 400 inmates that had to be fed and guarded regardless of the budget.
Elwell then asked Benton, "In an effort to cut to the chase, what can you get by with?"
"If I could get to $550,000 over last year, that would help with the Florida Retirement System payments and the compensated absences fund," she replied.
The sheriff assured the board that although they might have to reduce some programs, the office would not have to totally cut any of them.
"You have to remember that 86 percent of our budget is people. All we can do is move or consolidate staff," she said.
"But there will be no jeopardizing of public safety?" asked Elwell. Benton confirmed that was correct.
To fund the additional $325,000 for the sheriff's office and the remaining budget shortfall set at nearly $1.9 million, commissioners by a 3-2 vote moved to dip into the reserve for contingency fund. Moving it from three months of operating expenses to no less than 2.5 months after learning that each half month would amount to nearly $2.3 million in additional revenue
"The three months is not a policy, it was established as a goal," said Highlands County Administrator June Fisher
Germaine suggested that the compensated absences fund also still might act as an unofficial rainy day fund. It could remain intact without being disturbed, he said, unless there was a natural disaster or other emergency.
"If we did get into a mess and we had to have the money we could change the policy and go back to zero," he said. "I don't want to encumber that money, but it is and option."
The next t hearing is set for Sept. 5.
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