Finances Dominate QC Meeting
Finances dominated discussion at Monday night's regular Clay County Quorum Court meeting, held at the courthouse in Piggott. With all nine of the justices in attendance, the body reviewed budget increase requests by Andy Vangilder of the Clay County Extension Service, Circuit Clerk Janet Luff-Kilbreath and Sheriff Terry Miller. The only action taken on the matter was in response to Miller's hiring of four new employees to man the new 911 system, with this year's budget to be adjusted to cover the salaries and benefits. The other two proposals were taken under advisement, and will be addressed in the upcoming budget meetings.
After dispensing with the usual consent agenda items, the justices heard a presentation by Vangilder on new budget proposals mandated by the state. "I know most of you are aware we've been on the county level funding plan since 2002, and we have received little, if any, new money since 2008," he explained. Under the plan each county government has the option of investing as much, or as little, in the program as they choose.
"I know this is not a good time, but it can't be avoided," he added. "If we cannot come up with additional funds at the county level we'll be forced to look at cuts within the next two years."
Vangilder outlined the costs of staffing offices in both Piggott and Corning, and the related salaries and benefits. He noted the Corning office is one of seven sub-offices that would be closed under the state's plan, if local officials don't offset the costs of operations. "The cost of keeping the Corning office open is about $19,169 a year, and with salaries and all you're looking at over $32,000," he noted.
Clay County has two agriculture extension agents, and a family and consumer science agent, which could also change. "The base is one of each, but we're fortunate to have additional manpower--because we are busy all the time," Vangilder added. "If we can't continue to find funding we may have to cut back to two fulltime, and one part-time, agents."
He noted with agriculture serving as the primary driving force of the local economy, the services provided by his office are even more important to maintain. "We are very busy all the time, the job we do can't be done with less," he explained. "From 2007 to 2012 the number of farms in Clay County dropped from 731 to 610, but the number of acres farmed in the county increased from around 330,000 to nearly 331,500."
But, despite the need funds have been slowly dwindling from Little Rock. "We were able to get some temporary funding through State Senator Blake Johnson and State Rep. Joe Jett, but it was a one-time thing."
Vangilder also reviewed other programs associated with the Extension Service, including the SnapEd nutrition training and 4-H. "There were also 4,297 volunteer hours through our office just last year," he added.
Without action by the county to shore up the shortfalls, Vangilder indicated the cuts would begin in two years.
The justices thanked Vangilder for his time, and indicated the matter would be broached during next month's annual budget meetings.
Salary issues were also raised by Circuit Clerk Janet Luff-Kilbreath, who came before the court to request a change from part-time to full-time for a position within her office at Corning. Kilbreath noted a longtime part-time employee had recently resigned, and explained that changes with the way the state is handling records has forced her to consider changing the position to a full-time job.
"We now have to enter all documents into a data base for the state," she explained. "Soon we'll have to scan everything, and there will be Internet in the courtrooms so the judges and lawyers can review the case files and such."
She noted funding was sufficient in her budget to pay the new employee for full-time hours for the remainder of the year, but asked if the JPs would allocate additional funds for insurance and to cover the new hire in the years to come. "I have someone in mind for the job, but I can't ask them to quit the job they have now if I can't guarantee we'll be able to keep them as full-time next year," she explained.
The justices concurred, but noted it is still too early in the budget process to be able to guarantee the funds will be available. "We understand, but it would be a lot easier if you could just maintain until budget time," noted Budget Committee Chair David Cagle. "We just can't obligate ourselves until we know we have the money to cover it."
Kilbreath indicated she would look into her options, but noted she did not favor hiring from a temporary service. "We handle a lot of sensitive case files, and juvenile case files too, and I need someone I can trust to handle them in the correct manner," she explained.
Sheriff Terry Miller also addressed the JPs on budget matters, and explained an oversight on his part had prompted the request. He noted four new employees were added to man the new 911 computer system, but had not been properly budgeted. He requested additional funds to cover the new hires, noting the cost for the remainder of 2015 would run a bit over $62,000.
"We must have a dedicated staff to operate this system, it's such a value to the community and plays such an important role in everyone safety," Miller explained. "We would need to cover the full salaries for the four dispatchers and half the salary for Deputy Blane McClung."
Citing the fact the county is currently realizing an income from housing prisoners at the detention center, the justices concurred the need must be met. "We depend on the jail for income, so we're partially responsible for the problem," Cagle noted. He then offered a motion to provide the additional payroll, which was seconded by Justice Jim Clifton. The measure then passed on a roll-call vote of 9-0.
Miller also noted he will be forced to refill one of the new dispatcher positions, citing the recent death of Dispatcher Chelsea Ward, of Piggott.
Many of the budget concerns by the JPs stemmed from lower-than-expected tax receipts and increasing costs. County Treasurer Carolyn Morrisett told the court members the County General Fund was currently in the red by around $41,000, "and that will go up when we do payroll the first of the month," she added.
She noted the new countywide sales tax has helped, but noted income was only up seven percent over last year. "The sales tax was estimated to generate about $400,000 per year, and so far has netted the county about $321,000," she added. "Meanwhile, funds from the statewide fuel tax go directly to the county road fund, and amount to about $30,000 per month."
Morrisett also noted there was a substantial downturn in fines generated by District Court, which are down about $30,000 for the year. "This will also affect the county's automation fund for next year," she explained.
Miller also noted his department still has outstanding bills for housing prisoners, with around $25,000 on the books. Currently, the Clay County Detention Center is housing all the female prisoners from Randolph County, along with prisoners from other departments and the Arkansas Department of Corrections. So far this year housing prisoners has generated over $209,000, and in 2014 it netted the county some $333,000.
The budget committee meetings are slated to begin in October.