Budget Issues Dominate QC Meeting

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Concerns about the 2019 budget, and the impact shortfalls in revenue are having on the operations of the Clay County Detention Center, drew a large crowd of concerned citizens to the regular meeting of the quorum court Monday night. During the regular monthly gathering, held at the courthouse in Piggott, the finance committee presented the 2019 proposed budget—which included two options for reorganizing operations at the detention center in an attempt to save money.

The court also approved the ordinance which levies the ad valorem tax for fiscal 2018; approved a new member to the county library board and heard a report by County Extension Agent Stewart Runsick on an economic development effort in Corning.

“This is about the worst I've ever seen, and I've been at this for 16 or 18 years,” finance committee member David Cagle noted of this year's budget process. “We were looking at a $431,000 deficit. I've seen it as high as $100,000 or even $200,000 in the past, but never anything like this.”

He noted a sharp reduction in income, combined with a low carry-over, were also key to the deficit.

In response, he indicated the finance committee worked with Sheriff Terry Miller in finding ways to cut funding related to the detention center, which had a proposed budget of over $1,069,000.

“We cut where we could and took out all the unbudgeted money,” he added. “But we were still looking at a deficit.”

Cagle then outlined the two options for funding the detention center, noting he felt the issue was too important to be decided by the finance committee alone.

He noted the first option would be to no longer house prisoners at the jail, allowing a great reduction in personnel and operating costs. Under this plan, the facility would only be used for short-term housing and the prisoners would be transported to Greene County to their detention center. Currently, the county has an agreement with Greene County to house prisoners in the facility at a cost of $30 a day. The employees who are retained would serve as transport deputies, and would also assist when needed.

Cagle indicated this plan would allow the county general fund to maintain a buffer of more than $35,000 if put into action.

He then outlined the second option, which would keep the detention center open for certain prisoners while sending the remaining to Greene County. Under the plan, the facility would be used for temporary housing until transport and for lodging the 309 prisoners—who are allowed to work within the communities of the county on an as-needed basis. It also ends the practice of housing prisoners for other counties and cities. This plan also provides for a drastic reduction in manpower at the facility, with the remaining deputies to serve as transport drivers and bailiffs as well.

Cagle reported this plan would provide the county with a buffer of more than $17,000 if approved.

“We can either go with one of these two options or we're looking at across-the-board pay cuts,” Cagle added. “If we have to cut six percent or so that could really have a big impact on some of the county offices.”

He noted with either option the jail would not be closing, but would undergo a change of operations.

“We just need to pause the process, we're not going to shut the doors,” he added.

Judge Mike Patterson reminded the court, and spectators, that any changes made did not have to be permanent. “We can take a look at things later in the year,” he added.

During the discussion it was noted over eight million dollars in taxes have been collected so far, with over $800,000 still on the books. “And, we only get about 19 percent of that,” Cagle explained.

When asked, Miller indicated he favored any solution which would keep the jail open, noting the threat of jail time was the best leverage in getting people to pay their fines.

“Regardless of what we do we are not going to be letting everybody loose, if they need to be in jail they'll be in jail,” Miller concluded.

The justices reviewed the matter further, and concurred that there were few other areas in which such large cuts could be made. They also noted the impending increase in the state's minimum wage, approved by the voters this fall, will also impact the county budget in 2019.

Patterson also broached the issue of keeping employees at the detention center. According to Miller, the average length of employment for personnel at the center is around six months—leading to regular turnover.

Opening the meeting to comments the court heard from a number of citizens, including several members of law enforcement. Former sheriff Ronnie Cole disputed the need for a budget of more than one million dollars for the center, noting it was less than half that in recent years. He added that he felt mismanagement was the cause for much of the excessive spending. Jeremi Wicker of the Piggott PD also weighed-in on the issue, along with patrolman Chris Simpson and Russ Latimer of the sheriff's department, as they sought to clarify the plan.

District Judge David Copelin voiced his concern, and asked if the change would impact jailing those who fail to pay fines or fail to appear when summoned. In response, Miller once again assured those in attendance that anyone who needed to be jailed would be jailed, despite any changes.

Several others also commented on the issue, and inferred the changes could mean that the safety of the county's residents could be threatened as a result.

After a lengthy discussion period with the public, the finance committee recommended the passage of the second option. The court members then voted unanimously to submit this option, and the 2019 budget was approved on a vote of 7-0.

With the reorganization of the jail, the total funds budgeted for 2019 is $3,458,728.18 and the anticipated income is $3,466,134.41. Under the budget, there is a total of $17,406.23 which is not budgeted. In the previous fiscal year income was $3,787,410.18.

Earlier in the meeting the justices approved Ordinance 2018-12, which levies the ad valorem tax for fiscal 2018, collected in 2019. The measure was introduced, with the court members waiving the requirement it be read on three separate occasions, and was approved without dissent. The complete ordinance may be found elsewhere in this edition.

Clay County Extension Chair Stewart Runsick also gave the court an update on efforts in Corning to form an economic development group. He provided tax tables for the county, noting the impact of fewer residents and businesses—including the closure of their Walmart. Runsick reported a committee of 35 have been working on the problem in Corning, and asked that a member of the court join them.

Although he was not in attendance, Justice Dennis Haines, of Corning, was mentioned as the best candidate and approved.

During his update to the court, Judge Patterson reported that the state is continuing to survey CR 450, also known as the Crockett Road, in preparation of paving. He also indicated several bridge projects are underway, and he is seeking funding for additional efforts. Afterward, the court adjourned.

In addition to Patterson and Cagle, the justices in attendance included John Mansker, Mike Hill, Greg Ahrent, Richie Culver, Jeff Douglas and Duane Blanchard. In addition to Justice Haines, Justice Jody Henderson was absent from the gathering. In addition to Miller, the majority of the other elected officials were also in attendance.

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